Genomic editing: Genetically modifying – what’s the difference?

Agriland opinion

Rothamsted Research is trying to make great play of the fact that genomic editing is not the same as genetic modification.

In reality this is just a play on words: Genomic editing is, in fact, a form of genetic modification (GM) plus.

I make this point, not based on my extensive research credentials in the field of plant genetics, but rather on the back of the confirmation by Rothasmsted scientists that genetic modification is the essential first step in a process leading to ‘so called’ genomic editing.

So why not call it what it really is? If something looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck – then it probably is a duck.

I sense that Rothamsted is populated by scientific gurus who view Brexit as an opportunity to do what they really want – to use genetic modification in a truly serious way to revolutionise plant breeding in the UK.

But let’s put this issue to one side for a minute and stick to the current facts; Rothamsted has launched its new era of post-Brexit scientific discovery with the unveiling of a ‘genomically edited’ wheat trial.

Genomic editing trials removing asparagine

It has been designed to remove aspartic acid from the grain, thereby reducing the levels of asparagine – a known carcinogen – in cooked wheat products.

To me, this is akin to holding a fireworks display in a flooded field with the rain pouring down. The term ‘a bit of a damp squib’ also comes to mind.

However, had Rothamsted come out with an announcement confirming that scientists there had developed a ‘genetically edited’ wheat with the potential to really lift yield towards the 20t/ha target set by the same organisation just over a decade ago, then I might have gotten really excited. But, alas, no.

Personally, I believe that plant breeding techniques based on the likes of genetic modification and genomic editing are leading us up a blind alley.

And for those purists, who want to throw the issue of GM maize in my face, I would reply by referencing the crisis caused by blackgrass within the UK’s tillage sector. This herbicide resistant weed is now running riot through the British countryside and there seems little that scientists can do to stop it.

Mother Nature will always find a way of fighting back. In my opinion, it is better to work with the greatest force on this planet, rather than rebel against it.

I also sense that consumers in the UK, and beyond, want scientists to align themselves more closely with nature and not actively try to change it.

This is a message that the Rothamsted team seem to be over looking at the present time.