Beyond GM response to UK government consultation on deregulating gene editing

March 17, 2021 by Staff Reporter

Beyond GM has submitted its response to the UK government’s consultation on the deregulation of gene editing.

The consultation has been plagued with criticisms since it was launched on 7 January. In particular, it faced accusations of being biased and scientifically unsound and of being difficult to fill in and demanding a high level of evidence from lay respondents that would likely put off all but the most determined – or those who had already formed a view.

At the time of its launch Beyond GM Director Pat Thomas, noted:

“Environment Secretary George Eustice’s assertion that genome editing will produce better performing crops that will reduce costs to farmers, reap benefits for the environment and help agriculture adapt to the challenges of climate change has absolutely no foundation in scientific fact, and it is disappointing to see the government skewing the public discourse ahead of its own consultation with this kind of misinformation. The UK government has a clear agenda to deregulate genome editing and seems willing to say anything to achieve that – the very opposite of a democratic process. We will be mounting a vigorous campaign to ensure all voices are heard and given equal weight.”

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Encouraging participation

Beyond GM in collaboration with GM Freeze did provide comprehensive help to citizens who were seeking advice on how to respond and the two organisations undertook a lively social media campaign including bespoke visuals and videos to raise awareness of the importance of citizen responses to the consultation. These efforts have resulted in a high level of citizen participation which we have been tracking throughout the consultation period. We have also produced a detailed political brief for MPs.

Working with Slow Food in the UK, Beyond GM has also called on UK supermarkets to support strong regulation and refuse to stock unregulated GMO products in their stores.

On 26 January, Beyond GM also submitted an official complaint to Defra about the ways in which the consultation process flouted Cabinet Office Consultation Principles. In spite of a repeated requests from our organisation, the time-sensitive nature of the complaint and a written question tabled by Caroline Lucas MP asking why the department had not responded, Defra has refused to answer the complaint.

Working with EU groups, we also helped to organise a joint letter to key figures in the European Parliament, Commission and Council warning that UK moves towards deregulation constitute a clear breach of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) principle of non-regression.

Beyond the consultation

Our response to the consultation addresses risk and safety factors, but also important issues that go beyond these narrow confines. These include socioeconomic factors and ethics as well as coexistence, trade and corporate power.

In particular, we believe it is important to understand that genetic engineering in farming and the food system is a disruptive technology in the same vein as artificial intelligence, mass surveillance, driverless cars and 3-D printing. As such, it cuts across multiple sociological, environmental, economic, scientific and regulatory areas. Effective and rational regulation is only possible when evidence from all disciplines, stakeholders and citizens – those who too often fall outside a narrow definition of ‘stakeholder’– is included.

Our response to the consultation is quite detailed but our preliminary remarks to Part 2 are worth noting in full, since these are some of the key issues around regulation that all of us will need to take forward with parliamentarians and policymakers. We invite you to consider these points below and also to read our full response.

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Beyond GM preliminary remarks to Part 2 of the Defra Consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies

As noted in our introductory remarks, regulation is not a ban. Its primary purpose is to protect people and the environment, not to build markets or strengthen trade relations. This, nevertheless, appears to be the Government’s direction of travel.

For this reason, in addition to changing the definition of a ‘GMO’, we are concerned that the Government is also seeking to change the definition of ‘regulation’, altering both its concept and scope in an opaque manner that avoids public scrutiny.

We have observed a trend of euphemisms such as ‘enabling’, ‘proportionate’ and ‘flexible’ creeping into the regulatory discourse – including the Government White Paper, Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These words will no doubt feature in the responses to this consultation from the biotechnology research establishment.

While superficially appealing, these words are not defined anywhere and therefore it is impossible to decipher their actual meaning within the context of regulation. We would therefore ask: Enabling for whom? Proportionate to whose needs? and Flexible for the benefit of whom?

We are also aware of much theoretical discourse on how to remove regulatory ‘burden’ (e.g. Nesta’s Renewing Regulation: Anticipatory Regulation in an Age of Disruption and Deloitte’s The Regulator‘s New Toolkit). We note that the BEIS research paper Regulator Approaches to Facilitate, Support and Enable Innovation acknowledges that little robust analysis has been carried out around the impacts of removing this so-called ‘burden’.

Another concerning aspect of this discourse is the seemingly growing acceptance that disruptive technologies like gene editing are “blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds”.

We’ve seen no discussion at government level about whether, or why, we should acquiesce to this blurring. While blurring these lines may have advantages for business and what is loosely described as ‘innovation’, its advantages for citizens and the environment are less obvious and concrete.

In the absence of any meaningful analysis, the Government’s argument, in a nutshell, seems to be that things are changing quickly, that regulators are having difficulty keeping up with these changes and that removing regulations, and thereby the responsibility to keep up with and work methodically through, difficult challenges, is the best solution.

We do not believe this is responsible governance and ask that Defra ‘shows its work’ with regard to the impact of proposed changes in the direction of lighter-touch regulation and/or complete deregulation of gene editing.

It is our contention that changing either the definition of regulation or the regulation itself is likely to be a high impact action that a) affects a large number of businesses and individuals; b) introduces a radical change to existing regulations; c) requires government to acknowledge a high degree of uncertainty and a large number of factors which need to be considered to estimate the impact of such an action; d) likely to have disproportionate impact on one group of businesses (such as small businesses, or businesses in one sector) and e) is novel and contentious and may not, in the end, meet stated objectives.

Defra must, therefore, provide assessments of these factors and, given the high levels of uncertainty around gene editing, a clear explanation of how it will judge these levels of uncertainty against proposed actions.