This article was originally published in GM Watch.

The following analysis is provided by Third World Network.

A recent study proposes a more advanced and thorough means to evaluate potential changes to the compositional profile of genetically modified (GM) crops, in order assess unintended effects with potential food safety implications.

Using advanced molecular “omics” profiling techniques that can assess global changes to levels of RNA, protein and metabolites in a plant, the study on a GM soybean revealed a range of unintended changes in compositional profile, including increased levels of allergens and 70 proteins that were differentially expressed compared to the conventional counterpart. The scientists concluded that these changes have potential biological significance, with alteration to several metabolic pathways (related to protein synthesis and processing).

Current risk assessment processes generally use a “targeted” approach for assessing potential changes to nutrient and anti-nutrient profiles of GM crops, where a limited number of components are assessed. Even if significant changes are detected compared to its non-GM counterpart, regulators usually deem the difference “not biologically meaningful”, if the levels are within those seen in other crops.

This concept of “substantial equivalence” has long been criticised as inadequate and arbitrary. Indeed, in practice, this principle allows comparison of the transgenic line to any variety within the species, and even to an abstract entity made up of the composite of selected characteristics from all varieties.

The alternative “systems biology” approach undertaken by the study authors with the use of global profiling techniques instead provides an untargeted and unsupervised analysis that reduces bias, allows for an additional chance to detect unintended changes such as new toxins or allergens, and allows for comparison of compounds or molecule relevant to each GM crop, rather than to a pre-determined list of compounds. Increasing the range of compounds also allows risk assessment to keep abreast of changes in technical progress for GM crops that may involve deeper levels of intervention and thus increased complexities of potential changes.

As the authors conclude, “Based on the results generated by the approach proposed in our study, we conclude that the comparative assessment according to the current EFSA guidance is not fit for purpose and needs to be improved.”

Instead, a “systems biology approach based on a holistic perspective can be more informative in risk assessment than the currently employed endpoint-by-endpoint analysis for the assessment of potential unintended effects in a GM plant”.

GMWatch has long advocated including “omics” analyses in the risk assessment of older-style and new GM crops. Thus far, this hasn’t happened.

Integration of omics analyses into GMO risk assessment in Europe: A case study from soybean field trials
Benevenuto, R.F., Zanatta, C.B., WaƟmann, F. et al.
Environ Sci Eur 35, 14 (2023)