Haven’t we been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years?

The industry likes to say this in order to confuse people. The fact is that traditional breeding and hybridisation are completely different to genetic engineering. In traditional breeding it is possible to cross a rose with another rose to get a new variety, but it is not possible to cross a rose with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.

Genetic Engineering, or genetic modification, has only really been developed over the last 30 years. (The first ever field experiment with a genetically engineered plant was in 1983). With these molecular techniques, scientists are able to take DNA from any species – bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans, and engineer them into another organism.

Example: Biotech company Nexia has been engineering goats with a gene from a spider that leads to the production of the spider silk protein (the stuff that spiders’ webs are made of – of interest to the industry because it is so strong). The genetically engineered goats can then be milked for this spider protein.

Example: Biotech company Epicyte conducted experiments with corn engineered with genes taken from humans, so that the corn contains a rare class of human antibodies that attack sperm. The idea was to develop the corn as a plant-gel contraceptive that kills sperm on contact.