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King Canute and the Purple Sweater

Maurice Moloney, Feb 25th 2020


In my early teens, we weren’t particularly well off, but my uncle on my mother’s side was unmarried and more affluent. He often helped the family. He would always send us a fresh turkey, in a canvas bag a few days before Christmas. He remembered our birthdays and bought things like school uniforms for us when they were needed. 


That was all to the good and very much appreciated, until the ‘sweater’ arrived. The sweater was actually a beautiful piece of textile, but just the wrong colour. Somewhere between cerise and purple, it just wasn’t me, at least at my tender age of 14. I could not imagine wearing it, and I had to find a legitimate way of sidelining the sweater. It came easily, I found a loose thread inside the left sleeve. When I pulled it, it began to deform the armpit area. When I pulled a bit more, it began to create a small hole between the seam of the sleeve and the main tunic of the sweater. I pointed out the hole to my mother and the mischievous thread. She warned me, as mothers everywhere do, not to pull any more lest the entire sleeve would fall off. What she didn’t realize is that this was my real objective. 


I ignored her maternal advice and within a week the left sleeve was hanging by a thread (as it were). I was able to avoid wearing the near-purple sweater due to this self-imposed ‘wardrobe misfunction’, avoiding severe sartorial embarrassment with my friends. This was great until about 12 months later, when cerise-purple became the colour of the year. Everyone was wearing purple tee shirts, jeans and even dress shirts at Deep Purple concerts. I had pulled on the thread and destroyed a stylish garment. I now wished I had thought about it in a more prospective sense. Sometimes things that you don’t instantly like, eventually become extremely valuable: pre-Raphaelite paintings (ask Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber), Goal-line technology (England vs. Germany, 2010 FIFA World Cup) or Artificial Intelligence (2001 Space Odyssey and new antibiotics, Halicin).


Here we are again, with the technophobic European Commission struggling with the problem of mutagenesis in food crops. 


I reported some time ago that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on genome editing, which designated them GMOs, was like King Canute. The brave king wanted to remind his sycophantic courtiers that even anointed kings could not turn back the tides. The ECJ felt otherwise and effectively outlawed a natural process, or at least one which is technically impossible to distinguish from a natural process. I argued the case, but I pointed out at the time, that the worrying flaw was that if genome editing is illegal then where does that leave routine plant breeding? The judges at the ECJ deftly dealt with that problem by providing an exemption (based on the earlier GMO definition from 2001) to conventional mutagenesis in plant breeding. But this, of course, was the logical scientific equivalent to the thread in my sweater and once you pull on it, the whole thing begins to fall apart. 


As predicted, there is now a ruling in France that says that mutagenesis of a crop, which is routine technology for breeders, should be considered as a GMO under the 2001 rule. Under this, not only is genome editing declared ‘illegal’, but breeding a new carnation, celery or raspberry will bring all these crops into the expanding net of suffocating and outdated GMO regulations. The cost of doing this would be colossal, because it makes GMOs out of plants that have never seen a transgene. It would have to be applied fairly and if not, it will gum up the works of the entire cultivar registration process for years. It will be challenged extensively in the courts on the grounds that it is capricious and arbitrary, like outlawing Chihuahas, while exempting goldfish.  This is the equivalent of removing not only both sleeves from my ill-fated sweater, but the vee-neck and its rather stylish cuffs as well. 


Next year or the year after, like my sweater, they will see the error they have made and mutagenesis (and editing) will be necessary, just to feed people, combat climate change, maintain the crumbling Common Agricultural Policy and ensure that France and EU member states can actually trade with other countries that use conventional plant breeding. But it could take years to reverse, like everything else on the EU Commissions’ geologic timescales. 


Trust me, purple is the new black, and mutagenesis and editing are the new food supply chains (well, mutagenesis already is). Without them, the consequences will be much more dire than missing a fashion window (important as it was at the time). This time there will be food shortages, price increases and complete confusion in trading across the incoherent regulatory systems worldwide.


It is time for the judiciary and politicians globally to use knowledge consistently and to build regulation around sound science and not capricious concepts that fall apart the moment you pull hard on a protruding thread. 

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