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The inconsistencies of the European precautionary principle

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by Thomas Pierre

Genetic engineering continues not to be allowed in the EU, but random mutagenesis is...

Despite revolutionising agriculture, genetic engineering is not allowed in the European Union. I have laid out the problem with this EU legislation in other blog posts on this website. In this article, I want to explain the blatant inconsistency of allowing random mutagenesis when genetic engineering remains illegal.

Conventional plant-breeding technologies include random mutagenesis. In the 20th century, plant-breeders significantly increased the number of naturally occurring mutations by inducing it through chemicals and radiation, achieving changes in the genome that aren't directed or which outcome is not certain.

Robert Hollingworth, professor emeritus of the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Entomology and Institute for Integrative Toxicology has described the process as follows:

“More crops than you would imagine, in the supermarket today, were actually bred by mutagenesis. That is either treating the seeds with mutation-causing chemicals or blasting them with radiation. Ruby Red Grapefruit is an example and some of the barley strains that are used, even to produce organic beer, were produced in this way. It is quite common.

With mutagenesis, often the majority of things that happened were bad and so they would get thrown away, but once in a while something that was positive, like having no seeds or being shorter and therefore easier to harvest resulted and those were eventually released on the market, and without anybody asking a question."

In essence, GMOs, and in an even more direct way, gene-editing, are precise methods, while existing mutagenesis is imprecise. A coherent application of precautionary food safety policy would prioritise genetic engineering over random mutagenesis.

A list of thousands of mutant varieties created through radiation is available on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency, making publicly accessible information. However, despite being publicly available, it most certainly isn't public knowledge, comparable to the way many consumers believe that organic food production does not involve pesticides. If food products were to be labelled with a "product created through radiation", could we expect a reasoned conversation about the pros and cons of this method, or rather a complete rejection of these products from the start? The answer is intuitive. This is not an attempt to discredit random mutagenesis as a plant-breeding technology, nor make a wider claim about mandatory labelling, yet it does open this question: having considerably more certainty over the effects produced by genetic engineering than for those effects created by random mutagenesis, why are mandatory GMO labels a more attractive political option?

Furthermore, the inconsistencies of public discourse have made their way into legislation at the European Union level. The directive on the use of GMOs (addressed in the next chapter) excludes random mutagenesis, as the European Court of Justice has confirmed: "The Court states, however, that it is apparent from the GMO Directive that it does not apply to organisms obtained by means of certain mutagenesis techniques, namely those which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record."

This is inconsistent with the scientific understanding of these procedures. In fact, human-induced transgenesis has a long safety record, while the results of random mutagenesis are, as previously explained, volatile.

The European Union needs to review its approach to the precautionary principle. What we currently see is that innovative solutions are reprimanded, while old and more problematic one is held up, because they confirm the biases of some in the EU. 

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