October 10, 2018 by Staff Reporter
Will the UK maintain strict GMO labelling laws post-Brexit?
For the moment, at least, UK regulations are tied to those of the rest of the EU. That means that GMO crops and foods need to go through a well-established regulatory process and if a food product contains GMOs, it must be labelled as such.
But as Brexit draws ever nearer, a huge question mark hangs over how – and indeed if – the UK will regulate or label GMOs once it splits from the European Union.
The direction of the government’s thinking is clear. Long before the ruling in the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) case – which said that plants created using directed mutagenesis (and by extension, many argue, most new gene-edited plants, which make use of this technological step) must be regulated under existing regulations – Farming Minister George Eustice laid out his vision for a “new UK agriculture policy“:
“…we must invest more in science and technology if we want our farms to make the next step forward. New genetic breeding techniques such as gene editing could reduce our reliance on pesticides so we should support their development and put in place a new UK regulatory regime based on evidence and science, rather than the politics of the EU.”
The ECJ ruling has not dimmed Eustace’s fervour. At an All Party Parliamentary Group for Farming meeting at Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week Eustace said:
“We disagree with the judgement the ECJ has come up with. We think gene editing and cisgenesis is largely an extension of conventional breeding techniques, the likes of which we have had for decades.”
“I think this would be an early candidate for us to depart from the approach the EU is taking,” he said. “If we are serious about trying to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides and tackling some of these agronomic challenges, we do need to embrace an accelerated form of genetic breeding.”
Eustace’s point of view is both blinkered and ignorant and there is no excuse for it. It is not supported by the definition of what a genetically modified organism is, nor by decades of evidence demonstrating the damage that these types of crops can do in terms of increased chemical inputs, higher expenditure for farmers and damage to soil.
As the Soil Association’s Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy, Farming and Land Use said in her response:
“Despite decades of claims that traditional GM plant breeding is completely safe, that it would feed the world, reduce pesticide use and deliver all sorts of other benefits, the evidence has often shown GM crops to have been a disaster.”
“Scientific research has long shown that these new gene editing technologies give rise to similar uncertainties and risks as GM always has, and we would urge the government to ensure the UK stays aligned with this ruling based on scientific evidence.”
If the Minister is truly dedicated to science as his guiding light he might begin by reading the 2018 study in Nature Biotechnology which found that the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 can cause unexpected genetic damage which could lead to dangerous changes in some cells – and the two studies in Nature Medicine published just before that which showed that the CRISPR gene editing tool may inadvertently increase cancer risk in some cells (see here and here), and the one published before that which shows that humans may have an innate immunity to Cas9.
That’s just what it may do to the human body. What it may do to our natural environment is barely studied though as noted, again in Nature,: “Since the introduction of new tools such as the popular gene-editing technique called CRISPR–Cas9 it has been possible to spread or “drive” a given gene through a population almost exponentially”. As we have previously noted, what that means is that gene drives, which make use of CRISPR technology, have the potential to cause massive ecological disruption destroying and even “re-engineering” entire populations of wild species.
Embracing these technologies and pushing them into the soil and onto the marketplace without understanding the consequences is the antithesis of a ‘science based’ approach.
The ECJ ruling also threw up some uncertainties regarding the legality of ongoing field trials involving gene edited crops – one of which began in the UK in May 2018.
Immediately after the ECJ ruling, our colleagues at GM Freeze and GeneWatch issued a joint letter to secretary of state Michael Gove, to demand the immediate halt of the Rothamsted trial of genetically modified Camelina sativa, which includes some plants that have been genetically modified using new gene editing techniques. The letter also noted that, “any future trials of genome-edited plants will require a full risk assessment and public consultation prior to the open release of such plants into the environment.”
Groups elsewhere in Europe are likewise concerned about open air field trials involving gene-edited crops which could now be deemed illegal and which may have unintended and unexamined consequences.
The biggest loser in all of this is, of course, the consumer. We all want to know what we are eating and whether what we are eating is safe – for people and for planet. Strong regulation and clear labelling can go some way to ensuring this.
The Don’t Hide What’s Inside petition calls on the Environment Secretary, Brexit Secretary and the Chairs of the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland to protect consumers’ right to make an informed choice by retaining and enforcing the requirement to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, throughout the UK.
Liz O’Neill, Director of GM Freeze explained the problem the petition sets out to address. “We know that people in the UK want GM products to be clearly labelled and European Union regulations currently make that happen. The Government’s “no deal” technical paper on food labelling doesn’t even mention GM so we are deeply concerned that this key tool for consumer choice could be quietly shelved.”
Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM agrees adding that “The current ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to post-Brexit GMO labelling only benefits multinational corporations that are, through international trade deals, trying to foist GMO crops and foods onto the UK market. While these deals, so often negotiated in secret, use words like regulatory ‘harmony’ or ‘equivalence’, often these are just euphemisms for removing sensible consumer protection.”
Sign the petition here – and please share widely.