Adding, removing or swapping individual base pairs in the genome can make a huge difference to the functioning of a cell and the properties of an entire organism. It’s a bit like Johann Sebastian Bach’s definition of skilful piano playing: you just have to press the right key at the right time. It’s that simple, and yet also that difficult. Therein lies the appeal of genetic engineering, but also its risk.
The European Commission is now proposing that plants that have been genetically modified at up to twenty different sites of the genome should nevertheless be “considered equivalent to conventional plants”. At these twenty sites, any number of base pairs (nucleotides) may be deleted or inverted, up to 20 base pairs may be completely altered or replaced, any length of contigous DNA sequences may be replaced by related sequences, and any other alteration of any kind may be made that already occurs in any plant that can be crossed directly with the genetically modified plant or via intermediate steps.
No individual risk assessment and approval would be required for those...