I have been interested in genetically modified (GM) crops ever since I was working on my doctorate on salt tolerance in grasses in the late 1970’s. I have watched them grow from a glint in a few scientists’ eyes to a multinational business. Of course this development has not been without controversy. I have not infrequently found myself giving talks on this topic, and in 2010 I was even invited to speak at the House of Commons by the All Party Parliamentary Food and Health Forum (FHF). I try to take a moderate position and to present all sides of the argument. In 2013 we (JRI) organised a conference on GM crops with Redcliffe College. This latter conference was the most controversial I have ever been involved with, and by trying to give both sides of the argument we found ourselves attacked by both the pro- and anti-GM lobbies. This and other experience has led me to believe that GM crops are about as controversial a scientific topic as one can possibly get!
With the above in mind, I was very pleased to be invited back to the House of Commons to attend another FHF meeting to discuss “GM animals and the food derived from them.” Oddly, we hardly hear anything about GM animals compared with GM crops, but surely they must be even more controversial? Most GM animals at the moment are laboratory rodents (largely mice) that are used in medical research, and these seem to attract little controversy, but animals that we might potentially eat could be very different. So on 25th February 2014, I made my way to London once more. There were long queues at security to get in to the House of Commons, but I had plenty of time and even had a coffee at the Jubilee Café. I then made my way to Committee Room 19 up rather a lot of staircases and past numerous statues of famous politicians from previous eras. We had a little wait outside before the room was free. On entering I made my way to a window seat. It took me a little while before I looked out of the window, and I was surprised to find that if one were to jump out one would land straight in the River Thames!
And so to the meeting. What follows is very definitely a personal view on what happened, and the official transcripts and PowerPoint slides are posted on the FHF web site . I have also added in some web references for further information on certain topics. The meeting was chaired by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the two speakers were Professor Helen Sang (University of Edinburgh) who concentrated on the science of GM farm animals, and Dr Sandy Lawrie (Food Standards Agency- FSA) who told us about the policy issues.
Professor Sang began by informing us that at the moment there are no GM animals for food licenced anywhere in the world, at least partly due to holdups in the legislative processes adopted by various countries. Progress has been slow compared with GM crops.
The GM animal that appears to be closest to the market is the salmon. The company Aquabounty has produced the AquAdvantage® salmon in the United States. This includes a gene from the Chinook salmon, which means the fish can grow to market size in half the time of non-modified salmon, as it continues to grow in the winter. It is intended that the fish will be grown as sterile, all female, populations in land-based facilities, so that there is no possibility of interbreeding with wild populations. An environmental assessment has been conducted with a favourable outcome, but the project now seems to be stuck at the point of acceptance and it is not clear how the regulatory process will end.
Most of the other applications of GM technology to animals concern disease resistance. African swine fever in pigs is a serious viral disease that is often fatal. It is spreading in Eastern Europe, and seems likely to be coming our way. Interestingly the disease can infect the warthog, a closely related species to the pig, but they do not get sick. It seems that resistance is related to a small change in one gene. That gives the potential to introduce disease resistance into pigs.
Professor Sang spent some time discussing her own research on chickens. In 2009 a staggering 52 billion chickens were hatched, making it by far the most abundant food animal. The reason for this is probably that it is an accepted food by almost everyone, and there are few religious restrictions on its consumption. Chickens have many diseases, including avian influenza. They are very susceptible to the disease and the only current means of control is slaughter. In the latest outbreak 300 million chickens were destroyed. So could GM techniques help? Genetically modified chickens with one small change in their genetic makeup still succumbed to the disease, but they did not pass it on to either transgenic or non-transgenic animals (Lyall et al. 2011 ). The research was covered in the Daily Mail under the title “Scientists create GM ‘superchicken’ that doesn’t spread bird flu”. Careful consideration was given to the public perception aspects of the project, and in general this GM development has been favourably received. There is still much research needed before the technique could be applied to the domestic chicken on a large scale. One potential problem is that viruses are notorious for evolving their way around defences, but certainly there did seem to be good reasons to believe the work was worth continuing.
Dr Lawrie works for the FSA, which is the lead department on GM food and feed. He said that government policy was to encourage innovation based on sound science.
The relevant EU Regulation is 1829/2003 which came into force in April 2004. Under this regulation food must not:
(a) have adverse effects on human health, animal health or the environment;
(b) mislead the consumer;
(c) differ from the food it is intended to replace to such an extent that its normal consumption would be nutritionally disadvantageous to the consumer.
It is interesting that this legislation applies to all organisms (animals, plants and bacteria), but that so far only applications for GM crops have been submitted for approval, and there have been no applications for GM animals. All GM food must be labelled to comply with point (b) above. This is a key difference from the situation in the United States where labelling is not required (although several states are considering such legislation).
All applications to release GM organisms into the environment are considered by the European Food Safety Authority which has published guidance on the procedures to be adopted. An environmental risk assessment is needed to look at the possibility that genes may escape into wild populations. Food assessments will compare GM products with non-GM to determine whether there are there any differences. FAO/WHO developed the concept of substantial equivalence to aid in determining whether GM food is safe (FAO/WHO, 1996)(1). If a GM animal product was submitted there would need to be an analysis of the genetics of the animal. Would it be safe to eat? Might there be allergenic effects? So there is a framework in place for GM animals to be assessed in Europe, but so far there have been no applications.
Dr Lawrie ended with a brief consideration of the situation in the United States. Unlike Europe they have no specific GM legislation, and so applications are considered using existing legislation that has been developed for other purposes. So the GM salmon mentioned above was assessed under animal drugs legislation. There was a favourable assessment under these criteria in 2010, and the environmental assessment was favourable in 2012. But a final decision is still awaited, and the long delay in getting approval is similar to the situation in Europe.
There then followed an interesting and wide ranging question and answer session. Much of this concentrated on questions surrounding public perception. Will the public be persuaded to eat GM animals when GM crops have proven such a tricky area? Will retailers stock the products if they are worried about a consumer revolt? We also discussed the whole area of cost/benefit analysis. At the moment the European legislation only looks at safety, and the potential benefits of GM products are not considered in the assessment. A few European countries would like to change this, but it does not seem likely in the near future. Near the end I opened up the whole area of socio-economic concerns. So GM products may be “safe”, but many people worry about their ownership by a few multinational companies. Of course this is a problem for agriculture in general, but does seem to have particular relevance where GM products are concerned.
And so the meeting ended. I had a few interesting conversations afterwards, and then I made my way out of the House and headed home. What do I think of GM animals? Not sure really. Certainly, the research should continue. Certainly, if avian flu could be defeated this would be a major advance. But we have seen with GM crops that there can be surprises along the way. At least in Europe it looks like being a very long time before GM farm animals become a reality, and maybe we will have thought things through by then to the point where they become acceptable to the public. GM animals did not seem all that controversial to me, at least on this viewing. We will see. I would like to thank FHF very much for inviting me again and the two speakers for opening up the whole topic of GM animals in such an interesting way.
Dr Martin J. Hodson
(1) They say: “Substantial equivalence embodies the concept that if a new food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety (i.e., the food or food component can be concluded to be as safe as the conventional food or food component)”