One of the new GM techniques that developers hope will escape GM regulations is cisgenics – a form of GM that reportedly does not mix unrelated species, but engineers plants using genes described as “native” to that species. This, they say, leaves the species barrier intact, so no more toad genes in potatoes.

This approach is one of the most significant strands of New Zealand’s state-funded programmes to develop GM foods and feed. Leading this effort is Pastoral Genomics’ plan to develop cisgenic pasture grasses (see here for further details).

Cisgenics is to be offered to consumers as an olive branch: developers say they have learnt from the markets and have realigned their GM research directions.

Yet the language used to sell the concept of cisgenics to consumers suggests that the claimed reform of the GM research agenda is superficial.

The messaging is that cisgenics is not GM and/or that it is more like traditional plant breeding and therefore ‘natural’ – semantic manoeuvres that disguise the true nature of the technology and how its products are made.

In parallel, developers want to have cisgenic GMOs excluded from regulatory scrutiny to make such GMOs invisible and therefore easier to pass incognito into the marketplace.

A strategy that relies upon air-brushed representations of the nature of cisgenic products to gain acceptance could not be more hostile to the transparency that consumers in key markets have set down as a basic requirement for GM foods and, increasingly, for GM feed. Such conditions weigh more heavily in a country that depends on its reputation for integrity in food production to make its way in the world.

The test of the acceptability of cisgenic products is not whether they will be tolerated because their method of manufacture is unclear, or because they evade regulatory scrutiny. Rather, the real test is whether the public chooses to consume cisgenic food products, in full knowledge of how they came to be.

Key documents

Semantically Engineered Grasses (2011)

Betting the Farm (2011)

Hide and Seek. Developers Skirt Around Detectability of Cisgenic GMOs (2011)

New Zealand GM Pasture Grass R+D (2011)

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cisgenics New GM techniques