UK campaigners oppose plans to deregulate genome editing

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/SeventyFour
© GettyImages/SeventyFour

Related tags gene editing

Anti-GMO groups in the UK are calling for a rejection of amendment to the UK's Agriculture Bill that plans to deregulate a range of genome editing techniques.

A new Agriculture Bill​ is making its way through the UK Parliament, and an amendment has been tabled that would give the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, currently George Eustice, the power to change the definition of a GMO and re-classify many forms of genome editing as non-GM, they say.

That would mean that those techniques were no longer regulated and could be used on UK farms or in its food without the public’s knowledge or consent, claim Beyond GM, GM Freeze and GMWatch.

The campaigners argue that a “key and worrying aspect”​ of the amendment, tabled by Lords Cameron, Krebs and Rooker and Baroness Hayman, is that it proposes to give the UK Secretary of State the power to alter the definition of GMOs in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, without the need for debate or parliamentary scrutiny.

Those groups are strongly opposed to this amendment and any other attempts to “deregulate”​ the use of genome editing in the UK food system:

“We are concerned at the risks this would pose to public health and the environment, especially as science tells us that gene editing can create many unexpected effects in organisms​, including the production of new mRNA/proteins and compounds, which in turn could lead to problems of toxicity and allergenicity,”​ Claire Robinson, editor, GMWatch, told us.

Despite the reference to ‘agricultural research’ within the amendment, those campaigners say it is clear its aim is to “open the door to deregulating a wide range of genetic engineering techniques. Any change in the definition of a GMO via this amendment would apply to all agricultural uses, so passing this amendment would start the process of removing all safeguards on the use of gene editing on our farms and in our food.”

What the amendment says

Amendment 275


After Clause 42
Insert the following new Clause—

Agricultural research

(1)  The Secretary of State may by regulations modify the definitions contained in Part VI of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in relation to products of breeding techniques for agricultural purposes where nucleic acid changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made after the Secretary of State has held a public consultation on any proposed modifications to the definitions.

(3) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made in relation to England.

(4) Regulations under subsection (1) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”

Member’s explanatory statement​ To enable the Secretary of State to make changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as it applies in England, in relation to breeding techniques after the UK leaves the EU. This would allow for regulation of new precision breeding techniques compatible with international definitions.

Support for the amendment

However, support for the amendment has been seen in other quarters. UK farming representatives, the National Farmers Union (NFU), is backing an influential grouping of cross-party MPs and Lords in calling on the government to support such revisions in the Agriculture Bill.

The NFU said the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture maintains that the proposed amendment would pave the way for the UK to discard “damaging EU rules blocking access to precision breeding tools”​ vital for agricultural improvement at home and overseas.

The recommended revision would provide new powers for ministers to consult on and, if appropriate, make a simple change to the UK Environmental Protection Act giving Britain’s scientists, farmers, plant breeders and animal breeders the same access to new gene editing technologies as their counterparts around the world, claims the UK farming lobby. 

NFU vice president, Tom Bradshaw, said: “The cost of not taking this opportunity is the UK being unable to make use of a set of breeding tools that are already being shown to offer solutions to intractable problems such as the need to protect plants and animals from disease; the need to use fewer resources while maintaining or increasing quality and yield; and the need to produce more nutritious and more sustainable food for both domestic and export markets.”

Evidently, British breeders support the genome editing move.

The new CEO of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), Samantha Brooke, said the amendment would be an important step in re-aligning Britain with the regulatory stance of other countries around the world, where scientists, breeders, farmers and consumers are already benefiting from access to precision-breeding technologies, classed outside the EU as conventional.

“Advanced gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 can improve the speed and precision of crop breeding, opening up significant opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change," ​she said. 

Brooke outlined how the European Court of Justice ruling​ in July 2018 that advanced gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, also known as new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, put the EU at odds with how these techniques are regulated in other parts of the world, such as the US, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Japan.

The UK Agriculture Bill is designed to provide the legislative framework for replacement agricultural support schemes post-Brexit. It will provide a range of powers to implement new approaches to farm payments and land management.

Perspective of non-GMO German advocates  

Following the ECJ judgement, the Council of the EU requested a study from the European Commission to clarify the situation. 

Alexander Hissting, managing director of the German Association Food without Genetic Engineering (VLOG), outlined how the ECJ ruling was and is an important milestone for Europe's consumers, farmers and food industry, especially for the rapidly growing organic and 'non-GMO' sectors, and he stressed that the ongoing study of the EU Commission on the ruling must not be misused to weaken the rules.

"The aim must rather be the consistent implementation of the ruling and, thus, more consumer protection instead of more genetic engineering.

"Two years after the ECJ ruling, what we need, above all, is reliable detection methods for new genetic engineering processes and their consistent application."

He called on the German agriculture minister, Julia Klöckner, to ensure such an outcome under Germany's presidency of the Council of the EU, which got underway on July 1. 

"Consumers attach great importance to transparency. They want to know how their food is produced. A majority of them want 'non GMO' labelling, as surveys confirm again and again," ​added Hissting 

Related topics Regulation Europe Non-GMO

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