The UK Government’s determination to use Brexit to roll back EU regulations on multiple fronts – exemplified by Boris Johnson’s call for a “bonfire of red tape” – was underlined today with an announcement paving the way for deregulation of gene edited crops.
The announcement follows a controversial public consultation earlier this year – just 10 weeks in length, and launched during a national lockdown – which was greeted with a barrage of criticism from anti-GM, food and organic groups.
Currently, Britain still works to EU rules on gene edited crops, which require them to be treated in the same way as genetically-modified crops. The UK Government argues that gene editing is sufficiently different from GM technology – specifically claiming that it can only achieve results that would “occur in nature” – and regulation of them should be “aligned with traditional breeding methods”.
Environment and organic groups say gene editing is a form of genetic modification and comes with similar risks of unintended consequences, and, as yet, unproven benefits.
In plans announced today the Government has set out a two-phase deregulation of gene edited crops, beginning with changes to rules governing in-field research. A second phase will see gene editing moved out rules governing GMOs altogether.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Defra chief scientific advisor Gideon Henderson said: Gene editing technologies provide a more precise way of introducing targeted genetic changes – making the same types of changes to plants and animals that occur more slowly naturally or through traditional breeding.
“These tools enable us to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years.”
Views of a tiny minority
But campaigners say the Government’s response to the public consultation amounts to an uncritical advertisement for the biotech industry.
“Why is the government allowing the views of a tiny minority – many of whom represent the biotech industry – to override the views of the majority?”Pat Thomas, BeyondGM
She told Natural Newsdesk: “The Defra report on the consultation shows that 87% of the public and 64% of businesses (sectors responsible for 2948, or 95% of the responses analysed) feel that deregulation is a risky option; 63% of academia and 82% of and public sector bodies (82%) disagreed, but these represent just 35 responses in total to the consultation. Its more detailed analysis also indicates that the government ignored around half of the consultation submissions which it identified as being associated with campaign groups.
“Why is the government allowing the views of a tiny minority – many of whom represent the biotech industry – to override the views of the majority? Surely it can see that without public and business support there is no market for gene editing”.
In comments to The Guardian, Dr Helen Wallace, of anti-GM group Genewatch, described the changes as a “weakening of standards meant to protect human health and the environment”.
“GM crops that withstand climate change have been promised for more than 40 years, but have never been delivered. 90% of GM crops that are grown today are engineered to withstand blanket spraying with weedkillers that are harmful to butterflies and frogs. New gene-edited crops won’t be any different and will cause the same environmental problems.”
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, told the UK daily that “the government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all”.
The Soil Association said the Government’s focus on gene editing was “the wrong approach”. Its director of policy and strategy told the BBC that ministers should instead be working to help farmers become more sustainable. “What would help is a reversal of the … lack of investment in agro-ecological, nature-friendly methods and farmer-led technology.”