To GE or not to GE? That is the question

Bert Popping and Carmen Diaz-Amigo address the food safety concerns centred around gene editing food, and assess the difference between GE and GMO and the technologies used.

Gene editing (synonymously used with genome editing and frequently abbreviated as GE) has become a buzzword with positive connotations, unlike its older brother, genetic modification (GM).

We remember the days when Greenpeace and other NGOs campaigned in front of Sainsbury’s supermarkets in giant carrot costumes to explain to shoppers the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Fear is instilled more easily than knowledge. It was a new technology (at the time) that was used in the US to produce crops that are resistant to certain pesticides that were toxic to some insects and weeds. The best-known examples are the RoundUp Ready® soya of Monsanto and Bt-maize from Bayer.

Little was understood by consumers about the benefits that GM could offer and which risks it could bring. The bottom line was that, due to pressure from the public, the European Commission created assessment and regulatory hurdles that made it very difficult for GMOs to be placed on the market. Any product that contained a GMO or a derivative of a GMO crop (eg, modified starch from a genetically modified corn), needed to be labelled so consumers could make a choice. Supermarkets in Europe were fast to delist products that contained GM components, and in Europe GMOs in food were never accepted by the broader base of consumers. As a consequence, new labels such as ‘non-GMO’ or ‘GMO-free’ were developed and contributed to generating additional revenue for certification companies.

The old GMOs had another drawback. Their development was very expensive and time consuming. A recent report by Agroinvestor1 states that it takes almost 17 years for a new GM crop to reach the market, with an average cost of approximately 110 million euros. This is where the novel gene-editing technology is a game changer: costs are estimated to be only €10 million2 and time to market (depending on the type of gene edit) can be as short as five years. So, let’s take a closer look at this technology.