Technically the two are very different. GMOs have a gene added from another organism to produce a new trait. Gene-edited organisms have no genes added from another organism; instead, existing genes are edited to change, repair or remove a defective or unwanted gene.
For a quick overview of how scientists are using gene-editing on organisms, check out this short video.
You can easily see the many advantages in gene-editing ranging from ending animal suffering, as is the case in breeding hornless cattle rather than subjecting animals to horn removal, to eradicating malaria by making mosquitoes unable to carry the parasite and thus saving 1000 people a day from dying from that disease.
Certain famine and disease vs unknown futures
The European Commission has missed two deadlines on making the decision as to whether the two will be classed together. If it comes to that conclusion, gene-edited animals and plants would be as effectively curbed on EU farms as GMOs are now.
"If Europe does that, I think they will probably send themselves into the stone age of agricultural biotechnology," said Cellectis CEO Andre Choulika in a Reuters report.
And that is likely true. Further, the food chain is entering an age of increased vulnerabilities ranging from new external threats coming from climate change, to the rise of antibiotic-resistant and antibiotic-immune viruses and bacteria.
If Europe fails to use new methods to address these pressing threats, widespread famine may soon follow.
However, it is important to understand the risks in gene-editing too.
Risks are minimal when contained to a few organisms and then passed down through normal breeding activity where natural selection can curb or eradicate a change that doesn’t work out for the organism over time.
But, since CRISPR gene drives can be added to these organisms -- which are essentially self-perpetuating machines that can change an entire species fast-- things could quickly get out of hand and leave us dealing with more than a few unintended consequences.
Fortunately, there are a number of things happening now to safeguard against such events ranging from the existing limitations of gene drives, and the development of self-regulating gene drives that essentially self-destruct or fail to work after a predetermined time, to building reversal drives that overwrite the change made by the first gene drive.
To learn more details on this, check out this TED Talk by journalist Jennifer Kahn.
How fear of gene-editing kills people
But before you get freaked out, remember what the choice is here:
Famine and disease or a cure for both that comes with some risks.
For example, the Zika virus, carried by a mosquito, is causing serious birth defects such as microcephaly in many countries. If nothing is done, an entire generation of humans is threatened.
Microcephaly looks like this:
And, 1000 people a day die of malaria, another mosquito borne disease.
Gene-editing with the addition of gene-editing drives in mosquitoes can stop these diseases quickly and permanently.
But those are only two diseases gene-editing can end. Many diseases can be eliminated this way which is vital in an age when antibiotics are no longer effective in treating disease.
Further, gene-editing protects the food chain to protect humankind against famine.
This is why we cannot afford to discard gene-editing out of fear. Instead, we must address the risks so we can proceed more carefully.
However, regulation alone isn’t a cure all. As Jennifer Kahn said in her Ted Talk, “gene-editing and including a gene drive is basically something any lab in the world can do; an undergraduate can do it, and a talented high schooler can do it.”
Therefore, it is doubtful that regulated restrictions will succeed in stopping or controlling all such efforts. Most scientists think that technological safeguards are also needed. Hence efforts are currently underway to produce them.
Few fear gene-editing as a terrorist tool though since the work is very complex and time consuming. As Kahn said in her talk, why wait generations for an iffy result when they can simply blow things up now?
Why European breeders applaud Canada’s regulatory approach
Many European plant and animal breeders think Canada has the best and most responsible approach to regulating GMOs and gene-edited organisms.
“Rene Smulders, a plant breeder at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, wants Europe to follow the lead of Canada, which decides on new products based on their traits, not how those traits were produced,” according to the Reuters report. "’Europe's process-based legislation creates problems and is not suitable for the future,’ Smulders said.”
Indeed, it’s smart to evaluate a specific GMO or gene-edited organism for its actual traits rather than ban or overly confine the processes in general. This is the path to responsible progress. This is the way to save lives, both human and animal, while containing risks.
Here’s hoping the European Commission takes note.
EU breeders urge lawmakers to follow Canada on gene editing oversight