November 23, 2022 by Pat Thomas
In the UK, for the moment, genetically modified organisms are regulated.
They must be assessed for safety and environmental impact, before being planted or put onto the market and they must be labelled. The regulation of GMOs in the UK is the same as in Europe.
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, currently passing through Parliament, changes this.
The bill, which applies only to England, proposes to create a subcategory of genetically modified organism called the precision bred organism or PBO. According to the bill, a PBO is a genetically modified organism that could’ve occurred naturally or been created using traditional breeding. (The term ‘precision breeding’ has also been used interchangeably with ‘gene editing’ by government during the passage of the bill, gene editing is the more correct term).
The bill deregulates both plants and animals designated as PBOs, removing regulatory control from so-called precision bred organisms and allowing them to be planted in England and, as per internal market rules, to be sold as food and food ingredients throughout the UK without prior safety and environmental assessments, labelling, post-market monitoring and traceability.
Debates in the UK parliament about this draft legislation have inevitably fallen back on tired cliches adn unproven assertions to support the removal of these essential safeguards.
We need GMOs, we are told, to make farming sustainable, to fight climate change, fill the supply chain gaps made by the war in Ukraine and feed the world’s undernourished and starving. Most recently we are told that we need GMOs to prevent avian influenza in poultry – even though no such animals exist or are anywhere near coming to market.
We are also told that everywhere else in the world is doing it and if we don’t do it we will be left behind – though as our recent A Bigger Conversation report Modifying the Rules – An Overview of the Divisions and Inconsistencies in the Global Regulation of Agricultural Gene Editing shows this simply is not true.
Of the 195 countries across the world, just 16 have drawn up regulations to treat gene editing differently to GMOs. All other countries regulate gene-edited organisms as GMOs and the regulations that exist in other countries are often more nuanced and comprehensive than the free-for-all which the UK is currently considering.
Unsurprisingly, it is the top biotech producer and exporter countries such as the USA, Canada, Brazil and Argentina which are leading the drive to reduce the regulation on gene-edited crops. Eight of the 16 countries that have passed laws exempting some gene-edited crops from existing GMO legislation are based in the Americas: USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Honduras and Paraguay.
In recent debates in the UK parliament MPs and Peers keen to see deregulation of GMOs advance are now saying that the EU, which has long represented the gold standard for clear regulation of GMOs is also planning to change its regulation in a way that brings it in line with UK ambitions.
It is clear from our recent meetings in Brussels that the European Commission is considering different scenarios for separate legislation for what they are calling ‘new genomic techniques’ (NGTs). These include following a similar deregulatory path to the UK which creates a separate and more ‘light touch’ regulation of NGTs.
However, whilst the narrative put forward by biotech developers and Defra is that the EU is going to deregulate soon, this is not by any means certain and displays a fatal misunderstanding of the EU process, which is complex and lengthy.
Once the proposals are published in early 2023 a decision on which way to go will have to be made and then to become law any proposals will have to negotiate 705 MEPs, 7 political groups, 27 national delegations, 22 (sub-)committees and 44 EP delegations.
The constitutional framework that proposals have to pass through involves several readings and votes in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers with its mix of unanimous and qualified majority voting (where abstentions can be counted as no votes). This is aimed at achieving a consensus and is a fraught process where polarised views are involved. The so-called “triologue” where the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers seek compromise agreements will be complex.
The divisions (political, policy and public opinion) between and within countries on this technology are profound and therefore the timescale is likely to be long. It is possible that no agreement will be reached – in which case the proposals fail.
In addition to all this, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in the EU (the sole legislative body) changes every 6 months and each new presidency brings a different focus to legislative areas. The European Commission also elects a new President every 5 years with the next election coming in 2024.
This bill is seen as an important symbol of the UK’s independence from EU and a flagship of the government’s wider deregulation agenda. It is ironic that, in its increasingly desperate attempts to promote a bill that has been criticised by policy experts, the scientific community, food producers, supermarkets, animal welfare campaigners and a broad range of civil society groups, the government is now trying to promote the idea that the EU will be following our lead.
Our view is that it is unlikely we will see anything from Europe before 2025 and because of the strong opposition to EU proposals from Member States, especially from Germany and France, it is unlikely the EU would follow the UK path of near total deregulation. In addition, the EU has stated that gene edited animals are not being considered at all at this time.
The most likely outcome in the EU is that a compromise which satisfies no-one will be reached but will include provisions for labelling, traceability, and various levels of assessment and oversight of health and environmental safety based on a form of precaution.
The least likely outcome is a regulation which mirrors the current English proposals and our parliamentarians and the Department of Environment should stop pushing this false narrative.