Environment Secretary George Eustice announced plans last week to make it easier for the developers of some genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops to grow their experimental plants in open field trials in England.

Exactly which trials will escape the need to publish risk assessments, protect against contamination of local crops and take measures to keep their untested organisms out of the food chain, is not yet clear. Free rein will, we are told, be given to experiments with ‘plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods’. But what does that mean?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a Consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies from January to March this year and linked their announcement to the publication (three months later than scheduled) of a summary of responses. Among other points, the consultation asked a question that many found particularly puzzling: ‘What criteria should be used to determine whether an organism produced by gene editing or another genetic technology, could have been produced by traditional breeding or not?’

The most common response amongst the over 6,000 submissions to the consultation was that there are no suitable criteria for measuring which genetically engineered organisms ‘could’ have been produced in other ways. The Royal Society said that ‘this question is problematic’ and even the Roslin Institute, which welcomed the Government announcement and has a lot to gain from the dismantling of GM safeguards, said that ‘it is exceptionally challenging to define which changes to the genome could have been produced by “traditional breeding”’.

Regardless of what definition the Government settles on, they do not have public – or business ­­­­– support for their plans. A staggering 88% of individual responses to the consultation, along with 64% of the businesses that took part, said they wanted the use of newer ‘gene editing’ GMO techniques to remain under the protection of current regulations. Even the research institutions with a financial interest in pursuing (and often patenting) genetic engineering cited a wide range of concerns about the potential impacts of the proposed changes on trade and consumer choice.

The conduct of the consultation has been questioned from the start. Beyond GM and the Food Ethics Council published complaints while many others, including GM Freeze, raised concerns within their submissions. Given the Government’s decision to proceed despite an overwhelmingly negative response, it is easy to see why many regard the consultation as little more than a tick-box exercise.

Public opinion – and the voice of farmers, retailers and other businesses directly impacted by the removal of key GM safeguards – won’t get much say in the next step either. There will be little or no Parliamentary debate before any change in the law because the Minister plans to ‘use existing powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to lay a Statutory Instrument by the end of the year.’

This is far from the end of the story, though. That first planned change will be deeply significant, but it won’t open the door to the commercial cultivation or import of gene-edited GMOs. George Eustice seems determined to push on and swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all across the food chain, but he will face several challenges.

Food and agriculture are devolved areas of competency, meaning that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for GM regulation in their own countries and the proposed changes will only apply directly in England. None of the UK’s devolved nations support the Defra stance but the Internal Market Act, which is intended to prevent trade barriers within the UK, could force them to accept untested and unlabelled GMOs simply because England does. Throw in the already shaky Northern Ireland protocol and Westminster’s enthusiasm for all things GM could force a constitutional crisis.

Classifying some genetic engineering techniques as ‘not GM’ isn’t just a question of semantics. It means they will no longer be subjected to independent risk assessments; they won’t be traceable so if something goes wrong, they can’t be recalled; and they won’t be labelled so we won’t have the option to avoid buying and eating them.

In July, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which has responsibility for food safety, labelling and other issues in England, Wales and (with some differences) Northern Ireland, published the results of research it commissioned on public perceptions of gene edited food. The study found that shoppers want ‘thorough regulation and transparent labelling’ of gene edited GMOs. One of the FSA study’s ‘key findings’ was that ‘most consumers felt it would be appropriate to regulate GE foods separately from GM foods’, but this was closely followed by the important clarification that, ‘At the same time, many felt regulation should be just as thorough as for GM.’

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has a long-running programme of work exploring the ethical implications of genome editing of farmed animals. Their recent public dialogue was a genuine attempt to understand public concerns and a key finding was that citizens are keen to ask: ‘Will applying this technology take us closer to, or further away from, the agricultural systems we should aim for in the future?’

Defra’s press release was packed with wildly ambitious claims for what the latest GM techniques might do. Anyone engaged in the debate when GMOs first arrived twenty-some years ago, may well have experienced a sense of deja-vu at this point. Very similar promises were made back in the 1990s but remain unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the crops actually being developed with these newer techniques bear a remarkable resemblance to their early predecessors. The first two ‘gene edited’ crops grown commercially anywhere in the world are an oilseed rape engineered to withstand repeated spraying with particular weed killers and a soya bean designed for the fast-food industry.

This familiar story is no coincidence. The GM approach to farming is fundamentally flawed. Changing plant and animal genes can’t fix the food chain because the things that are broken have nothing to do with genetics. If we really want to ensure that everyone has enough to eat, we need to address corporate control (just four companies control more than 60% of global seed supply), poverty and obscene levels of waste. Meanwhile, agroecological approaches to farming are creating nature-friendly methods of pest control, drought resistance and resilience to the climate emergency – all with a minute fraction of the research and development budget that has been sunk into GMOs.

This isn’t just about food and farming, though. In the same week as George Eustice’s announcement, a Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) consultation on Reforming the Framework for Better Regulation closed. The proposals focus on the framework by which all regulations will be assessed and show very little understanding that the purpose of regulation is to protect people and the environment.

Regulation is one of the ways that society deals with uncertainty. As genetic engineering technologies advance, so does the realisation that our knowledge of gene functioning is still significantly incomplete. By ploughing on with proposals to remove existing safeguards, the government has made clear that it believes that what we don’t know does not matter. As noted in the GM Freeze response to the BEIS consultation, ‘It is vital that the public and environmental safety implications of removing or amending any existing regulation are reviewed with full consideration for what can, and indeed might, go wrong.’

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