UK Government proposes crop gene-editing in bid to increase food security

27 May 2022, 08:32 AM
  • On Wednesday this week, the UK government presented a new bill which would allow gene-editing to improve crop resilience and make the country more self-sufficient
UK Government proposes crop gene-editing in bid to increase food security

The proposed new legislation, the Genetic Technology Bill, would relax regulations for gene-edited produce and would at first apply only to plants, but extend to animals in the future.

This could have significant implications for fine food retailers championing healthy and natural produce, and threatens the organic sector which has already been waiting for an answer from Defra on how it plans to protect organic growers from genetic modification contamination.

Gene-editing technology is banned in the European Union, but Brexit has given the UK the ability to set its own rules and can now consider the technology.

The war in Ukraine has pushed self-sufficiency to the top of the agenda after the conflict has caused huge supply issues with essentials such as wheat, oil and fuel. 

The government believes that introducing gene-editing will lead to crops that are resistant to pests and diseases and more resilient to the impact of climate change, thus boosting productivity and food security.

Threatening biodiversity loss
Organic land certifiers, Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), have expressed serious concern over Defra’s introduction of the Genetic Technology Bill when it comes to biodiversity loss and its effect on our planet.

Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G, argued that the bill “Flies in the face of public opinion that revealed the public was 80% against deregulating the use of experimental genetic modification (GM) techniques in 2021.”

In fact, Defra just revealed that more farms are converting to organic, and organic produce sales hit £3billion last year, indicating that the public is increasingly interested in natural and GM-free food.

Roger continued, “The Secretary of State has said that this government intends to ‘follow the science’. Yet the implication of biodiversity loss with the unregulated introduction of this technology into our natural ecosystems appears to be of little concern.

“If the widespread depletion of biodiversity from the use of agrochemicals over the last 70 years has taught us anything, it must be that we need to properly assess and regulate the introduction of new technology which ‘hard bakes’ many of the same attributes into a plant’s genetic makeup.”

OF&G also questions the claims of economic growth that new GMOs are intended to drive, highlighting that the Intellectual Property Rights of patented crops will, in all likelihood, boost profits for the favoured few, with little or no benefit to farmers.

In response to the Bill, OF&G recommend that government and industry investment should be focused on measures that address the fundamental weaknesses in the food system, protect the natural environment and resolve the alarming volumes of food waste and massive gaps in nutritional security across society.

“Instead, we are seeing a government heavily investing in supporting systems that secure Intellectual Property of food products of a few well-placed companies, rather than focusing on feeding the people they are elected to protect,” Roger added.

‘A stupid decision’
Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, is also passionately against the proposed legislation. Speaking to Speciality Food, he commented, “The government has made an unbelievably stupid decision, based on its misplaced blind faith in the white heat of technology to solve the problems of our current unsustainable food systems. 

“I think we’ll come to regret the day that the government legalises the use of gene-edited crops. The proposition that we can improve on nature by fast-forwarding the development of new varieties that can somehow produce more nutritious food, be more disease resistant, or have higher yields is fundamentally flawed. 

“The irony is that these problems are mostly related to agricultural intensification in the first place, so gene-editing is treating the symptom not the cause of the problem.”

Soil Association echoed these thoughts, as policy director Jo Lewis explained. “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests. Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place.”

Jo continued, “To prioritise a genetic engineering de-regulation bill over the Food Bill called for by the National Food Strategy smacks of a government casting about for silver bullets. It avoids dealing head-on with the transformation needed in our food and farming system for true security and resilience. 

“As highlighted by the National Food Strategy and the new report by Chatham House, agroecological farming and a shift to healthy and sustainable diets are the most evidence-based solutions for climate, nature and health. The government’s response to that recommendation is long overdue.” 

Lack of regulation
Patrick was also concerned about the lack of regulations for the new legislation, including labelling. “To legislate is bad enough but not to require labelling is plain irresponsible. Senior scientific experts who work in the field of gene therapy advise that gene-editing is just as risky and unpredictable in its consequences as genetic engineering.” 

This is something Liz O’Neill, director at GM Freeze agrees with, as she told Speciality Food, “Gene-editing is GM with better PR. Those promoting the dismantling of regulatory safeguards are keen to persuade people that this is something brand new but it really isn’t. There is a lot that can go wrong along the way and that’s why we need proper safety checks. 

“The Bill that the Government introduced yesterday aims to remove those safety checks and the labelling that allows consumers – and everyone along the supply chain – to make an informed choice.”

“The rushing through of this bill, without rigorous regulation is an alarming development, especially at this time. It fails to protect consumer choice and neglects to consider the potential for long term damage to the environment and the rural economy”, Roger added.

In contrast, the National Farming Union (NFU) believes gene editing could protect crops and animals from pests and disease, help the country deliver net-zero, and allow farmers to produce more home-grown food.

Responding to criticism that gene-editing should be regulated, Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the NFU, stated, “The underlying principle of this consultation is that some new breeding techniques, such as gene editing, are not the same scientifically as genetic modification and should therefore not be regulated in the same way. This approach is already used in several countries around the world and it is one that we support.

“We believe that farmers should have the choice to access the best tools available to enable a resilient and innovative British farming industry.”

The Genetic Technology Bill still has a long way to go before it is passed, so only time will tell if genetic editing becomes the future of British farming.

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