March 24, 2023 by Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill became law late yesterday afternoon. This means it will now be legal to grow and sell gene edited foods in England without labels or environmental or food safety assessments.
Our Director, Pat Thomas sums it up this way:
“The Genetic Technology Act has a single beneficiary – the biotech industry. It removes meaningful regulatory control – including safety assessments, consumer labelling and monitoring – from a staggering range of genetically modified plants and animals in our food system and the wider environment. It allows biotech developers to self-certify that their engineered organisms are safe and beneficial and imposes no penalties if that turns out to be untrue. I think it’s absolutely right to question the motives and the consequences of any piece of legislation that allows a large and well-funded industry to fly so far below the regulatory radar.”
“The political context of this Act is as important as the scientific context. The UK government has shown complete disdain for science by inventing its own category of GMOs – the precision bred organism (PBO). This PBO is a special Brexit GMO that, we are told, will transport the United Kingdom to the sunny uplands of global tech dominance while at the same time fixing our food system and wider environmental problems. The catch is that gene editing technology, which has been around for more than a decade, consistently over-promises and under-delivers and that makes it an economic, food system and environmental failure. We should be focusing on solutions that work.”
There’s no particular ceremony to Royal Assent, which turns a Bill into an Act. All that was required was for the Speakers of both Houses to notify MPs and Peers that King Charles had given his consent to the new law. It takes a few unremarkable, business-like seconds, but the implications for our food system will play out over a much longer period.
Indeed, signing the bill into law is not the end of the story, it is the beginning of a new chapter.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen next and apologies upfront for a longer than usual newsletter.
Some aspects of the Act, including the definitions for so called “precision bred organisms”, or PBOs – gene edited organisms by another name – and the right to grow these crops in England (experimentally or for food or other purposes), come into force immediately. Other aspects will require new regulations to be brought in which will, for instance, allow these products to be sold in shops and served in restaurants, hospitals and schools.
One of our biggest concerns is that the right to grow gene-edited plants is not limited to agricultural products but also extends to wild and free living plants. We are already seeing experiments in the United States with gene edited trees. Researchers there are also advancing plans for gene edited grasses like miscanthus, to be used for “green” biofuels. There is nothing stopping such experiments here now.
Its early days yet, but the most disgraceful headline so far has come from the National Farmers Union which proclaims “Precision Breeding Bill gains Royal Assent after years of NFU campaigning”.
Given its recent and very public hand-wringing about how the government is undermining farmers, the notion that the NFU (not National, not for Farmers and not a Union, as the old saying goes) has spent years lobbying for more genetically engineered crops is just depressing. The “voice of British farming” will probably rewrite that headline before the day’s end, so here is a screenshot for posterity.
Government chief scientist Gideon Henderson has been sent out to do the media rounds. His clear brief has been to reassure the public that things aren’t as bad as they think, that the government has everyone’s best interest at heart, that it can be trusted with our farming and food system, and that it is moving forward in a careful, stepwise fashion with beneficial innovations for farming. Henderson has repeatedly misled the media and therefore actively skewed the debate about what gene editing is and what it can achieve, so we don’t put much stock in his reassurances.
As we indicated in our last newsletter, there is a great deal of secondary legislation still to come for this bill and we will, of course be fighting to ensure that this Act doesn’t do any more damage than has already been done.
It is still unclear, whether or how the government will make information available to the public or indeed, organic farmers about which crops are being gene-edited and where these are located. Details of what might constitute a “public register” have been vague to non-existent. We continue to press the government on this.
We are, and have been for most of this year, in dialogue with the Food Standards Agency representing the views of the majority of citizens in the UK who want to see gene-edited food labelled. The FSA’s own surveys (last year and this year) have shown overwhelmingly that UK citizens want to see gene-edited foods labelled. Our YouGov poll showed the same thing and so did the government’s 2021 public consultation. The Food Standards Agency’s motto is “food you can trust”. Without labelling, there is no possibility of trust.
We will continue to fight the false narratives in the media, even though it’s like pushing water uphill. Even after patiently, explaining that gene editing is scientifically and legally a form of genetic modification, that it’s not a simple “snip”, that it does insert foreign DNA into the organism, that there are documented unintended consequences that must be taken into account, newspapers and TV programmes continue to misrepresent what gene editing is.
Media stories also promise shops full of new GMOs, even when presented with evidence that there is nothing to sell and nobody who wants to buy it anyway.
We are also actively supporting our colleagues in Europe, where the debate about regulation is more open, where large environmental NGOs are more involved and more active in campaigning against deregulation, and where the government process, which involves negotiating the views of 27 Member States – many of them deeply opposed to deregulation – means legislators can’t simply do whatever they want.
Should the European Union, for instance, agree to label gene-edited crops and foods it puts the UK in a very difficult and isolated position where products created or crops grown here won’t be able to be sold into that huge and important market. A decision to constrain gene editing in Europe would also support the positions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to remain GM-free.
Through our A Bigger Conversation initiative we are currently conducting interviews with farmers across the UK, seeking their views on what constitutes agroecologically appropriate technology. We’ve just completed the first series of workshops and are analysing what we have heard. These workshops have been in-depth and very interesting. It has been heartening to speak to the farmers who are at the real leading edge of agricultural transition. We hope this work, when it’s finished, will contribute to some basic criteria on what constitutes appropriate technology.
If you haven’t done so already, please sign our joint petition with GM Freeze to demand that all GM foods are labelled and please encourage family and friends to do the same.
Yesterday was an incredibly sad day, but today the fight begins again and we hope that you will continue to support us as we head back into the fray.