The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
I recently had my Covid jab at London’s Science Museum, a wonderfully apposite location. Rolling down my sleeve afterwards, I enjoyed a celebratory brunch in a café whose offerings were proudly marked “GM-free”. This gave me pause. Having queued up to have a genetically engineered vaccine stuck in my arm, I was being encouraged to spurn genetically engineered food on my plate. Did that, I wondered, make sense?
The BioNTech and Moderna vaccines demonstrate just how fast our ability to sequence and interrogate the genome is transforming medicine. New gene-editing techniques could also transform farming, and play a vital role in combating climate change, but they are still widely shunned as creating “Frankenfoods”.
In February, the Co-op supermarket reaffirmed its ban on genetically engineered ingredients from its product range, in response to concerns that the UK government wants to make gene editing easier post-Brexit. Under EU law, no commercialised genetically modified or gene-edited crop can be planted without a lengthy risk assessment and member state approval. Loosening such restrictions could usher in techniques to combat disease and grow crops with higher yields to feed the world.
The Cavendish banana, my namesake, offers a useful illustration. I have occasionally shown friends, with misplaced pride, its dwarf variety in Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. The Cavendish variety dominates world production but is now on the verge of being wiped out by a new strain of Panama disease, a fungus which has already killed off the only other banana which looked and tasted like the Cavendish, the Gros Michel. In some countries where farmers rely on these crops to earn a living, the situation is desperate: Colombia declared a national state of emergency in August 2019, when Panama disease was discovered on its banana farms.
With pesticides unable to combat the fungus, it seems that the only way to save the Cavendish banana is to alter its genome. In Australia, researchers have created “transgenic” GM bananas, by inserting a gene from wild bananas which may help resist the fungus. In the UK, the Tropic Biosciences company is editing the Cavendish’s genome, using CRISPR technology to cut out the genes which make it susceptible.
Such genetic tweaking seems unnatural. But the Cavendish banana itself is unnatural, bred as a clone to make each generation genetically identical. In fact, almost nothing we eat is truly “natural”: every crop and animal we consume derives from centuries of breeding.
We routinely assume that “natural” is better than “unnatural” when it comes to food. But it is more complex than that. Potatoes and some other vegetables contain toxins which could be deadly if we didn’t tackle them by breeding them out or avoiding mouldy bits. Organic crops are grown using pesticides including copper sulphate, which is toxic even though it is naturally occurring.
Genetic modification certainly feels scary — because it involves inserting extra DNA, even if that’s only one additional gene to the plant’s own tens of thousands. Gene-editing, by contrast, precisely targets specific genes to fast-track changes that would take years using selective breeding.
For the EU to have treated both methods with equal stringency, as it has done since 2018, seems unfair. Ministers seem minded to make it easier to conduct field trials and get commercial approval for gene-edited plants and animals, which would bring England more into line with the US, and an announcement is expected soon. But should they go even further?
With climate change the next big threat, the huge carbon footprint of farming must be addressed. Genetic engineering offers the possibility of ending dependence on fertilisers which use fossil fuels, and of making crops more resilient. It will allow us to engineer rice to produce less methane and ultimately grow meat in the laboratory, which would drastically reduce the number of intensively farmed animals.
To transform agriculture and reduce its impact, we need both techniques. For genetic modification can still do things which gene editing can’t. The UK’s Rothamsted Research crop centre is testing camelina plants genetically modified to express the same kind of Omega-3 oils found in fish. “Golden Rice” is a GM crop with added genes for the chemical beta-carotene, in an attempt to make it provide more vitamin A. Although Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in many parts of south-east Asia, many countries in the region remain reluctant to adopt something which seems so outlandish.
Regulation is vital, for there are many legitimate worries. Can local wild plants or crops become cross-contaminated? Could insects be affected? What is safe? GM technology is still overshadowed by the attempts in the 1990s of some American companies to create monopolies, binding poor farmers permanently to their seeds.
But regulation must be intelligent. The Royal Society has urged the UK government to regulate all new plant and animal varieties according to the safety and characteristics of the new products created, not by what technique is used to make the change.
This seems sensible. In the 1990s, I supported environmentalists who opposed GM. Today, the scientists I speak to seem to inhabit a different world to the days of “atomic gardening”, when zealots irradiated plants to induce mutations, and there were fears about “killer tomatoes” crossed with fish. Explaining the real trade-offs to the public will be a big job. But personally, I would rather eat a slightly altered version of the Cavendish banana than never eat one again.