GM proponents claim that genetic engineering of crops is no more risky than natural/conventional breeding. But in fact, genetic engineering is different from natural/conventional plant breeding and poses special risks. In particular, the genetic engineering and associated tissue culture processes are highly mutagenic, leading to unpredictable changes in the DNA and proteins of the resulting GM crop that can lead to unexpected toxic or allergenic effects.
Cisgenic or intragenic GM crops pose the same risks as any other transgenic crop. There is nothing “new” about cisgenics/intragenics. These methods only differ from transgenic methods with regard to the choice of organism from which the gene of interest is taken.
Sometimes GM proponents misleadingly compare genetic engineering with radiation-induced mutagenesis, claiming that the latter is natural or conventional breeding, and conclude that genetic engineering is safer than “conventional” breeding. In fact, while radiation-induced mutagenesis is occasionally used in conventional breeding, it is not in itself conventional breeding. Like genetic engineering, radiation-induced mutagenesis is risky and mutagenic. It is not widely used in plant breeding because of its high failure rate. Some researchers have called for crops bred through mutation breeding to be subjected to the same kind of safety assessments as GM crops, a measure required by Canada’s food safety authority.
Comparing genetic engineering with radiation-induced mutagenesis and concluding that it is less risky and therefore safe is like comparing a game of Russian Roulette played with one type of gun with a game of Russian Roulette played with another type of gun. Neither game is safe. Both are risky.
A more useful comparison would be between genetic engineering and conventional breeding that does not involve radiation- or chemical-induced mutagenesis. In fact, this is the method that has safely produced the vast majority of our crop plants over the centuries. It is also the method that is most widely used today.
In challenging genetic modification, we are not rejecting science and are not rejecting the most advanced forms of biotechnology, such as marker assisted selection, which speed up and make more precise the methods of conventional breeding. We are only challenging the premature and misguided commercialisation of crops produced using the imprecise, cumbersome, and outdated method of genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology). Why use these methods when there are better tools in the biotechnology toolbox?
It is unnecessary to take risks with genetic engineering when conventional breeding – assisted by safe modern technologies such as marker assisted selection – is capable of meeting our crop breeding needs (see 7.3.2).