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Frequently Asked Questions

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What is genetic engineering?
How is a GMO made?
How does a GMO differ from its conventional counterpart?
Why are GMOs produced?
What are the risks associated with GMOs?
Which are the most common types of GMOs?
What is MEPA's role in the regulation of GMOs in Malta?
Are GMOs allowed in Malta?


What is genetic engineering?

Engineering is the technological manipulation of objects in a way that is perceived to result in benefits to mankind. This word has often been used in the context of inanimate nature, such as bridges, buildings and machines. However, the term can also be used in a biological context, namely for manipulating living organisms.

Genetic engineering uses new methods of breeding that allow scientists to improve organisms. This is done by isolating genetic material from organisms, cutting this material and rejoining it to make new combinations. Copies of this recombined genetic material are then made and introduced into organisms to give them a specific desired trait or characteristic.


How is a GMO made?

GMOs are made by genetic engineering techniques. The process involves altering or replacing parts of the genetic material of an existing organism. Therefore, the first step in making a GMO is to construct the new combination of genetic material that is to be inserted in the organism, and which will give a specific trait. This involves cutting and joining DNA from different sources so that they form a single stretch of genetic material. Cutting and joining of genetic material is done by using what are known as "enzymes", these being proteins that speed up reactions in organisms.

The next step involves inserting the newly created stretch of genetic material into an unmodified organism, for example a plant. Different techniques may be used to achieve this. One method involves the use of a "gene gun", which fires tiny metal particles coated with genetic material into the cells. Another procedure uses an Agro bacterium. This is a type of bacterium, which through a natural process, transfers part of its genes into the plant's DNA when it infects the plant. Prior to infecting the plant, the bacterium is modified so that part of its genes is replaced by the new stretch of genetic material. Thus, this new genetic material will be inserted into the plants' genes by the bacterium itself.

When making a GMO the natural process of reproduction is bypassed. In so doing, genes can be transferred between species that otherwise would not naturally interbreed. Thus, for instance, insect genes can end up in a plant, and genes from a bacterium can end up in an animal.


How does a GMO differ from its conventional counterpart?

Conventional plant breeders mate individuals from the same species or related species to produce offspring, which will have genes from both parents. For thousands of years humans have been selecting the characteristics they prefer in plants and animals in order to satisfy their needs. This involved selecting and breeding the most beautiful, the strongest and the most productive, to produce offspring, which would have hopefully inherited some of the desirable traits. This process is called selective breeding. The result of this process is a population that is genetically diverse and preserves much of the initial genetic diversity of the parental lines. Selection occurs in successive generations until the desired results are achieved. It is therefore reasonably controllable and predictable, although it involves a lot of trial and error.

Nowadays, research and development have led to a better understanding of the science of genes. A GMO bypasses reproduction altogether, so a gene from a completely different species can be used. For example, tomatoes can be genetically modified to stay fresh for longer by inserting a gene from fish into their DNA - something that was not possible before by selective breeding. This process is precise and is not subject to so much trial and error. However, GMOs also lead to a lack of genetic diversity, since all resulting GMOs would express the exact same gene for a particular trait.


Why are GMOs produced?

The discovery of the possibility to alter the genetic makeup of an organism has led to an explosion of research and development which has benefited many fields:

Agriculture

  • Agricultural crop yields are increased, as fewer crops would succumb to diseases or pests.
  • The quality of agricultural crops is improved - for example, by producing potatoes with an increased nutrient level.
  • Crops, such as salt resistant and drought resistant crops, can be grown in areas, which are otherwise not easily farmed.
  • The need for chemicals, such as pesticides, is reduced, as GM crops can be made resistant to certain insect pests. This would also have an added benefit of lowering the costs incurred by farmers.
  • GMOs offer a quicker and more predictable way to generate new cultivars.
  • Tillage and fuel consumption can be reduced through the development of herbicide tolerant GM crops, thereby resulting in cost savings to the farmer. 

Medicine

  • Medicines, such as human insulin, can be made in large quantities. Until the mid-1980's most insulin was produced by extracting insulin from the pancreas of swine and sheep. However, there was a recurring problem that there was not enough insulin for all diabetic persons. Thus, through the production of insulin from GMOs, enough insulin could be made available to diabetic patients. The insulin produced through genetic engineering is identical to natural occurring insulin, with the advantage that it is bacteria and virus free, due to the sterile nature of the production process.
  • GMOs can be used to produce vaccines and other drugs.
  • Pharmaceuticals, which cannot be made in any other way, can be produced.

Environment protection

  • Waste / pollution can be cleaned up with the action of living organisms, such as microbes or plants through bioremediation
    (for example, the sequestration of heavy metals from the soil by GM grasses. The grass can then be removed and burnt, allowing recovery of some of the valuable metals and an improvement in soil fertility.)
  • Reducing the need for chemical spraying leads to a reduction in the release of chemical substances, such as pesticides, which can have adverse effects on the environment.
  • Reduced tillage has an associated benefit of reducing soil erosion and water loss on farms.
  • The higher the yield of food per unit of land, the less land must be cleared to grow our food. The less land that is required to grow our food, the more that can be retained as forest and wilderness, where biodiversity can flourish.  

Food production

  • The production of some food products, such as cheese and yoghurt, can be made much faster than if allowed to follow its natural course.
  • GMOs can help to alleviate the food shortage problem by ensuring food security.  

Other

  • Some flowers, such as carnations and orchids have been genetically modified to provide flower colours that do not occur naturally. Thus, the range of flower colours available on the market is increased.


What are the risks associated with GMOs?

Despite the many benefits they can bring, GMOs may also carry some risks of unwanted side effects on agricultural production systems, human health and the environment: 

  • Horizontal gene transfer into soil and gut microorganisms.
  • Creation of new invasive species commonly referred to as superweeds - the crossing of a modified gene to a weed can occur only if the GM crop has a local wild "relative" capable of interbreeding. There is concern that crop plants modified for herbicide tolerance and weeds will crossbreed, resulting in the transfer of herbicide resistance genes from the GM crops into weeds.
  • The use of GM plants may result in impacts on non-target species. For example, insect resistant GM plants may affect non-target species, such as butterflies or moths that try to feed on the GM crop.
  • Increased risk of pesticide and herbicide resistance of pests to GMOs.
  • Possible spread of antibiotic resistance.
  • Contamination of organic and conventional crops with transgenes through cross-fertilisation or gene transfer.
  • Loss of biodiversity farm wildlife.
  • Loss of crop genetic diversity.
  • Increase in herbicide use to control volunteers (weedy crop plants).
  • Creation of dangerous novel pathogens and diseases that may escape containment.
  • Potential instability of the inserted gene.
  • Potential allergenicity of foods.
  • Potential novel toxicity of foods.  


Which are the most common types of GMOs?

Plants have been the subject of most interest in recent years. The most common types of GM crops that have been developed and commercialised include genetically modified maize, soybean, oilseed rape and cotton varieties. Such varieties have been developed to be either resistant to a particular herbicide (weed killer) or to certain crop pests, namely insects. There have also been a number of plants developed to exhibit both traits simultaneously - that is, resistant to both certain insect pests and a particular herbicide.


What is MEPA's role in the regulation of GMOs in Malta?

Due to their potential impacts on the environment, activities and releases of GMOs have to be controlled. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), which is the Maltese authority responsible for environmental matters, is the Competent Authority in Malta for the implementation of the regulations on the contained use and the deliberate release into the environment of GMOs. In order to ensure an integrated approach in the effective implementation of these regulations, MEPA has set up an advisory committee, the Biosafety Co-ordinating Committee.

GMOs that may have an impact on the environment include all living modified organisms, such as seeds, unprocessed grains, plants and animals. Therefore, these types of organisms fall under the above-mentioned regulations. On the contrary, products derived from GMOs, such as paste or ketchup from a GMO tomato, do not have any impact on the environment and so control and regulation of these products do not fall within the competency of MEPA.

Are GMOs allowed in Malta?

Any living modified organisms to be grown or imported in Malta need to be first authorised by MEPA.GMOs authorised for use in containment facilities
One GMM Facility which operates with Class 1 organisms is authorised for contained use activities in Malta to date.

GMOs authorised for experimental purposes in Malta
No releases of GMOs into the environment for experimental purposes have been authorised in Malta to date.

GMOs authorised for placing on the EU market
Under the EU directive, which regulates these types of releases, (Directive 90/220/EC, which was repealed by Directive 2001/18/EC since 17 October 2002) numerous GMOs have been approved for placing on the EU market. These authorised GMOs can freely circulate in all the 27 EU Member States, including Malta.

List of pending, authorised and withdrawn applications under EC Directive 2001/18/EC

 

 

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