A Collision Course with Unintended Consequences

gene-editingby Melody Meyer (Organic Matters)

In an early morning jaunt to Sacramento last week my car was rear ended.  I serve on the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (who by the way are looking for new members), and was on my way to attend a subcommittee meeting when boom—a fine young man rammed me in the rear. As I recuperate from the trauma, I wax philosophical and wonder why this happened and what the long term unintended consequences will be. The same ruminations can be applied to the novel gene editing techniques that are racing towards us with accelerating speed. Are we all on a genetic collision course with unintended consequences? 

As I mull over the details of that 5am departure, I wonder how two strangers woke up, made coffee, and rambled into their cars just to crash into each other at that moment in space and time. What trajectory was I launched on when I circled back and grabbed my lunch bag? What velocity did I drive just so I arrived at that spot for him to anoint me with pounding steel; up the bottom of the carriage so to speak?

The same musings can be mulled over for many of the new gene editing techniques that aren’t classified as GMO’s. From the first time we stood up on the Savanna and picked up that primal tool, were we fatefully launched on a trajectory course that would end in manipulating the very core of life itself? Our propensity for tinkering coupled with our big brains has landed us now in a godlike place where we can alter the very genetic code of life. Will there be unintended consequences?

History (and my sore neck) tells me that there always will be unintended consequences. If you look at the history of DDT, Agent Orange and TNT, they all have had negative accidental aftereffects. We now know that the rise of (traditionally) genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops has resulted in a huge increase in herbicide use and the rise of superweeds as a result. Chuck Benbrook has made that point many times.

The hottest and most cutting-edge GMO techniques aren’t even recognized as GMO’s. Scientists can now precisely edit unique traits within one species by using a technique called Crispr-cas9, which works like a pair of molecular scissors, snipping away this trait and inserting yet another. In fact the technology goes so far that it can now force the trait to persist forever more by using “gene drives.” Entire populations can now be genetically altered to always inherit that unique trait or even make the entire species crash. Sound like science fiction? Nope it’s here today and throttling towards us at breakneck speed.

My young driver was good hearted and intended me no harm. Just so the scientists working on these novel techniques are well intentioned mavens of research and genius, hoping to make the world a better place. Gene drives have been proposed as a technique for changing wild populations, for instance to combat mosquitoes that spread malaria and zika, to control invasive species, or to eliminate herbicide and or pesticide resistance in superweeds.

These cutting-edge gene editing techniques could potentially block the inheritance of many diseases such as cystic fibrosis. They could also lead to custom-made children where parents pick and choose the traits of their progeny.

The problem I have is that none of these techniques are regulated or transparently tested for safety. In fact many of these techniques are readily available and easily accessible to anyone who has access to the internet and half a propensity for scientific tinkering. A report by Nuffield Council on Bioethics warns that the simplicity and low cost of tools to edit the genetic code means that “garage scientists” pose a potential risk from the release of GM bugs. Sounds like unintended consequences barreling down upon us.

The report goes on to state and I quote “Genome-edited organisms (as with all genetically modified organisms or GMOs) pose a possible risk of harm to those handling them, and to others or to natural ecosystems if they are released or escape from controlled environments. Most countries have layers of regulation which cover the handling, transport and release of GMOs, but there are concerns about how these can be managed outside of regulated environments.”

Genetically modifying plants is far from harmless as this article points out. “Techniques of genetic modification, old or new, are not fully mastered: if they do allow bringing some new traits to a living organism (such as herbicide tolerance), they also produce unexpected modifications: ‘off-targets’ effects caused by the techniques such as mutations and epigenetic mutations, because of the techniques implemented during the process.”

What do we do now that we are crashing through the penetrable walls of subatomic DNA barriers with no regulation or oversight? Should we step outside the vehicle and access the possible damage? We are no longer messing around with a lone area of our ecosystem but potentially the very building blocks of our genetic heritage and legacy. We can and are impacting life itself on the planet.

The first path to regulations is to become aware of the speeding carriage barreling towards us. Friends of The Earth and ETC Group recently published the Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology to help consumers like you avoid the new wave of GMOs in food and cosmetics, and find truly natural and sustainable options.

The National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board are requesting comments on whether these new techniques should be allowed in organic production.

The unintended consequences of this new technological collision course must be explored and challenged. If you need a license to drive a car, shouldn’t you have a license and some rules of the road to do gene editing? Shouldn’t we have safety tests, belts and cameras in place to assure we don’t crash our genetic inheritance?

Let’s urge governments worldwide to put some restraints on these new technologies while putting processes in place to evaluate those we cannot yet dream of. The speeding vehicle is coming.