New legislative changes for GMO field trials – Beyond GM responds

January 20, 2022 by Staff Writer

See updates at the bottom of this page.


The UK government has announced that is changing the law on field trials for gene edited crops – today.

Defra announced that it would be taking this action last September but has never been clear about when.

This morning’s hasty announcement comes one year on from the launch of the public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies in which 85% of respondents expressed the view that the UK should maintain robust regulation of gene-edited organisms.

The statutory instrument being laid today will use powers granted under the Environment Act 1990 to introduce legislation to make it cheaper, easier and faster for scientist to obtain a licence to conduct open field trials of genetically engineered crops.

The Defra press release offered no details of the specific changes being made and no links to the text of the statutory instrument, further heightening longstanding complaints of lack of government transparency and a heavy-handed attempt to control the media narrative.

Indeed, whilst rumours of the legislative change were circulating yesterday, we were aware that only a chosen few had actually seen the advance press release which suggests that the UK could soon be growing disease resistant sugar beet, climate resistant wheat and mildew resistant tomatoes. But according to Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM;

“There’s a lot of techno optimism about what kind of gene edited foods might materialise one day, eventually, in the fullness of time. But none of the crops Defra is talking about is close to coming to market. The reality is that after 35 years of use genetically engineered crops have not delivered much in terms of real value and they have largely been a distraction from more meaningful discussions about what kind of food system we want and need to transition to.”

Without the text of the SI it is impossible to fully discuss the plans but important questions linger.

No field trial applications have ever been refused in the UK, so it’s hard to imagine what the government can do to make what is essentially a rubber stamp process less burdensome, unless it is to remove sensible ‘safety-first’ measures like public notifications, requirements for buffer zones between the trial and other crops and procedures to stop trial material getting into the food chain and crop residues persisting in the field.

“In the UK field trials are mostly a rubber stamp exercise anyway and compared to development and marketing costs further down the line the cost is not really a significant hurdle to development. Today’s announcement is a sop to the biotech research establishment that doesn’t really address the most significant hurdles that developers need to face, which are that farmers don’t really want to grow genetically engineered crops and citizens don’t want to eat them.”

The next step in the government plans is primary legislation to change the definition of a GMO to exclude gene editing. This is a much more complex process and resistance from the public and a form civil society is likely to be high.

Essential background

New report out today questions the veracity and integrity of Defra’s process and the interpretation of its public consultation on regulating genetic technologies.

On the one year anniversary of the UK public consultation Beyond GM’s A Bigger Conversation initiate has also published a report.

Filling in the Blanks: What Defra Didn’t Say is an alternative analysis of responses to the Defra public consultation, based on more than 400 pages of submissions from respondents representing the full spectrum of views on agricultural genetic engineering.

It suggests that in its rush to deliver on the governments the regulatory agenda, Defra has missed, glossed over or simply failed to understand key points and thoughtful arguments being made by those groups and individuals who responded to the public consultation.

The report provides essential background to the consultation process and notes that there are still no validated impact assessments looking at the costs, benefits and risks of regulatory changes. There are promises, but no real-world evidence to show that gene editing will deliver against measurements such as sustainability, carbon savings, higher yield or better nutrition.

There are no clear scientific criteria for deregulation and no plan to develop social, ethical or values- based criteria that will enrich and guide the approval process for genetically engineered plants, animals and microorganisms. There is no plan to assess alternatives and no plan for involving citizens – as equals – in the decision-making process. There are no plans for managing co-existence at any point along the supply chain. There is no plan for how to deal with liability issues including those around intellectual property rights. There is no clear plan for labelling.

All of these things, so basic to the development of reasoned and viable policy and regulation, the report suggests, need to be rectified before any legitimate plan to change UK regulations can proceed.


Update 20/1/22: you can now view the changes to the legislation here

Update 26/2/22: Beyond GM has submitted a letter to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) detailing multiple concerns about the proposed SI. Read it here.

Update 3/2/22: Beyond GM has submitted a letter to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instrument (JCSI) raising multiple concerns about the proposed SI. Read it here.

Update 10/2/22: The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) has published its comments on the proposed SI, lending strength to many of the concerns we raised. See here.