Why (some) GMO regulations don’t make sense

Hello from Cape Town, South Africa! I can’t believe that I’m already halfway through my time abroad and almost done with my third country. Last week I had one of the best research days of the trip so far when I visited the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria. While I was at FABI, I participated in a round-table discussion on the ethics of biotechnology research and science communication with a group of student scientists from the institution.

So far on this blog I’ve only discussed transgenic crops – those which contain a gene borrowed from another organism. I’ve been using multiple words synonymously including GMO and biotechnology as a way to keep my sentences from sounding repetitive and jargony. In reality, each of these words mean something a bit different, and I should be more careful. For example, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism which has had its DNA modified in any way. The category includes transgenic crops, but also crops that have modified through other means. During the round-table conversation the students emphasized how arbitrarily different breeding techniques and GMOs are regulated.

For example, it takes over a decade and millions of dollars to navigate the regulatory processes of approving a transgenic crop. On the other hand, a breeding process called mutagenesis is unregulated. With this technique, a scientist subjects a plant to UV radiation or chemicals to try to induce a random beneficial genetic mutation. The scientists agreed that this method was far more likely to cause environmental or human health problems because it’s impossible to understand the mechanism or side effects. Nevertheless, these crops are hardly regulated and can even be considered organic.

While it is important to ensure the safety of all things we eat, by disproportionately regulating transgenic crops we create a system where only certain farmers and companies have access to beneficial technologies. For example, this week I met with Dr. Jennifer Thomson, a biologist at the University of Cape Town. She has spent her career developing traits such as the one that makes African corn resistant to the devastating Maize streak virus. The trait is ready to go, but no private company is willing to invest in the regulatory approval process because the disease only affects African farmers, who don’t have enough market power to make the trait profitable. Thus, the only way this technology will reach rich and poor farmers in need is with a philanthropic investment. Dr. Thomson called this problem a disgrace and emphasized the need for a regulatory process proportionate to the risk associated with a technology.
Tomorrow I will go to Johannesburg, where I will meet with representatives of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program and Monsanto. Check back soon for another post (I promise – sorry I’ve been bad about writing this week).