For the past 100 years or so, chemistry has been the foundational tool of agricultural advisers. The yield is down? Throw some NPK fertiliser (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) fertiliser on it, or just straight nitrogen, produced at great environmental expense through the Haber-Bosch process.
The state of nature
That’s got us where we are today, with the world’s soils in a parlous state, the planet’s capacity of geochemical flows exceeded, biodiversity in a state of collapse and public health astonishingly poor even – or especially – in the wealthiest nations.
Having trashed the physical world, we’re now at risk of – through similar reductionist approaches – damaging the genetic world, the sophisticated, incredibly complex interactions that make up a living thing, which have developed over hundreds of millions of years.
As H L Mencken said: “Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible — and wrong.”
The approach of people working at the coalface of genetics research is not quite as simplistic as the media would paint it. One of them said to me after a discussion last week, “a single gene will not drought-proof wheat”. I really wish they could get through to the Observer about that.
But still the idea that they can manipulate genomes like an engineer finetuning a blueprint, and so boost or maintain yields, or add in desirable characteristics, is prevalent in many quarters. Any accidents that happen along the way – and when pushed they will admit that their technologies produce lots of ‘accidents’ (‘off-target effects’ in the jargon) – are not important, they insist. And anyway, they say, nature produces mutations all the time.
Natural and gene-edited mutations
Yet at a briefing meeting on the genetic technology (precision breeding – oh no it isn’t) bill last week, the degree of concern within the scientific community – that the researchers are messing with systems they don’t understand, with consequences that are unpredictable – was clear.
That ‘like nature’ claim clearly does not stand up. A lot of this research is very new, but increasingly it is being shown that the “prevailing paradigm that mutation is a directionless force in evolution” is wrong. Natural mutations occur far more often in parts of the genome of organisms that could produce positive change, and far less often in crucial functional elements. But the gene editing tools can dive into any part of a DNA sequence, including those that nature protects.
And those accidental changes are not mere noise. Again research has shown that genetic modification techniques (of which gene editing is one) has effects on the proteins and metabolism of the target species – effects that could produce allergens or toxins in wholly unexpected ways.
But, say the gene editing proponents, there’ll be years of trials before a new variety is released, and any problems will emerge then. And in nature lots of things must have gone wrong in the past, and lack of fitness of the ‘mistakes’, or time, has fixed the problem.
Pause the genetic technology (precision breeding) bill
But that ignores the scale problem. In today’s world a problem let loose can spread, fast. Just look at SARS-CoV2 and avian flu for two examples. Take an example that could be let loose on the world at commercial scale in a year or so in the United States.
A pig has been selected for resistance to one disease. But could that make it more vulnerable to another? Of course in the past that must have happened naturally – we know many conditions in humans are related to genetic patterns that are protective in some contexts, like sickle cell trait and malaria. But such natural changes will occur slowly, and there will be selection pressure against disease predisposition variants over long timescales.
This is why I’ve put down an amendment to the bill today calling for a pause, and requesting a deliberative, democratic process, involving the public as well as duelling experts, to give consideration to where we in the UK want to go with gene editing technology. The science is not settled, it is fast changing, and genies, as we all know, once let out of the bottle, cannot be recaptured.