Gene editing regulations spliced

Man holds 'Stop GMP invasion' protest sign

Protests against GMOs have taken place since 1997, in the UK and around the world. 

Greenpeace
The UK government is about to deregulate gene editing – so what just happened?

Defra ignore concerns about the unscientific nature of its framework in order to pursue a largely ideological agenda.

The UK government has announced its intention to remove key regulations from gene edited crops after much delay and a 10-week consultation provoked thousands of concerned responses from the public.

The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a public consultation on its plans to deregulate agricultural crops produced using a genetic engineering process called gene editing earlier this year.

But serious questions remain about the government’s divergence from both science and public opinion.

Genetic

As a first step, the government will remove the requirement for researchers wishing to conduct field trials of gene edited crops to apply and pay for a license.

Instead, researchers and institutions need only notify Defra of their intention to conduct a trial. This change will be ushered in via statutory instrument (SI) without any parliamentary debate, and is scheduled to happen before the end of this year.

This will be followed by primary legislation to change the definition of genetic modification and genetically modified organisms, most likely via in the UK’s Environment Act, to exclude gene editing from current regulations.

In the longer-term, the government will be reviewing the UK’s approach to regulation all types of GMOs.

Significantly, and without comment, the government appears to have sidestepped the issue of gene-edited livestock – at least for the time being. 

Food chain

Defra ignore concerns about the unscientific nature of its framework in order to pursue a largely ideological agenda.

Although the initial plans relate only to England, it is by no means certain that they will not, eventually, be adopted by some or all devolved nations, which for now remain opposed to genome editing.

Scotland, for example, is said to be aligning with EU principles on the regulation of gene editing. But with European regulators currently eyeing a four-year horizon for the deregulation of gene editing, it is not inconceivable that the Scottish government could, in the future, change - or be forced by circumstances to change - its approach.

Defra says it wants to cut the red tape and lift the regulatory burden on biotech research and development. But the process of, for example, applying for a field trial in the UK already has a very low burden of proof, takes only a couple of months from start to finish and costs only a few thousand pounds.

Moreover, few, if any, 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, as some suspect, 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. At time of writing there are still no details of the full proposal.

Deregulation

Underneath the fanfare, the vagueness and lack of real substance in Defra’s consultation report and the announcement of the rule change, suggests that the government did not get the answers it was hoping for in its public consultation.

In fact, the public has expressed little appetite for deregulating an experimental technology that could heap more disruption on a food system already in crisis.

This was confirmed by some very troubling figures in Defra’s detailed analysis of the consultation responses. This summary was released after the initial press announcement had been taken up widely by the media and was therefore largely ignored by the mainstream press.

It showed that Defra excluded nearly half of the consultation responses based on the fact that it identified them as coming from supporters of “campaigns”. Even so, of those responses that were included in the final analysis, 85 percent indicated no support for deregulation.

The government has chosen to ignore overwhelming public opinion and pursue deregulation anyway.

Problematic

Equally troubling is the basis on which Defra is choosing to change regulations. According to Defra, the focus of any changes will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

We at Beyond GM were highly critical of this argument in our own response to the consultation. We argued: “The concept of gene editing events that 'could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding' is not defined in the consultation document, on the Citizen Space form or in any of Defra’s materials relating to this consultation and has no basis in science."

We weren’t the only ones as our own internal analysis of all the publicly available consultation responses shows.

For instance, the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) believes this approach to be “overly simplistic”; the Microbiology Society said it was “purely philosophical”, Nuffield Council on Bioethics said it was “not convinced that this is either the most proper or most popular framing”.

Further, the Roslin Institute found it “exceptionally challenging”, Royal Society called it “problematic” and quite rightly made reference to issues around how rare this phenomenon actually is.

Breeding

The Royal Society of Biology said it provided “no clear criteria” and further noted that “no clarity can be achieved using this principle” and “we would not recommend using it as the basis for regulation”.

Defra is choosing to ignore concerns about the unscientific nature of its framework in order to pursue what appears to be a largely subjective and ideological agenda.

According to George Eustice, the secretary of state for the environment: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss”.

Indeed, a new and aggressive PR narrative around gene editing seeks to bolster support for deregulation of gene-edited crops by framing them in the context of global emergencies like climate breakdown and the fragilities of the industrial food system.

But the degree to which plant breeding in general, and agricultural genetic technologies in particular, can address these overwhelming global challenges is highly contested.

Failure

Tackling food waste and the greenhouse gas emissions of energy companies and the transport industry are likely to yield better and faster results. Indeed, look how quickly CO2 emissions fell during the recent global lockdowns.

We can’t save the world through genetically engineered crops. It is an entrepreneurial folly that, based on past performance, is bound to disappoint.

For more than 30 years, biotechnology has been promising that environment-enhancing crops are just around the corner. These crops have never materialised because the genetics of disease- and pest-resistance, of higher nutrition, better yields and drought- and salt-tolerance are complex and difficult to manipulate.

What works in the lab all too often doesn’t work in the real world. It is that failure, rather than the regulatory landscape, which has stalled the progress of genome editing in farming.

The people know it – and the UK government should be listening.

This Author 

Pat Thomas is a director of Beyond GM and A Bigger Conversation in the UK.

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