Supermarket lends voice to campaign opposed to deregulation of gene editing in the UK

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Trifonenko
© GettyImages/Trifonenko

Related tags: gene editing, GMO

Leading supermarket chain, Co-op, has expressed caution over the UK government’s review into the future legislative approach to gene editing of crops and livestock in England.

The Consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies was launched by the UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on January 7 and will run until March 17, 2021.

EU legislation controlling the use of GMOs was retained in the UK at the end of the transition period, after December 31, 2020. This retained legislation requires that all GE organisms are classified as GMOs irrespective of whether they could be produced by traditional breeding methods.

Defra said it is its view that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods. “Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to consult on the implications of addressing this issue. We recognize there is a spectrum of opinions on these topics, and we are consulting to provide an opportunity for all views to be shared."

Co-op chief executive, Jo Whitfield said genetic editing is one of several new technologies and innovations that may in the future help us address the challenges facing the global food system.

However, as with any new technology, it is important citizens are assured about food safety and the environmental and economic impacts are thoroughly understood before any decisions on widespread adoption are made. To this end, scrutiny by independent scientists and officials, as well as engagement with civil society, is essential. We would expect government to clearly set out how it intends to regulate gene editing, whilst providing clear conditions of use and any labelling requirements.

“We have no current plans to change our policy on prohibiting genetically modified (GM) organisms, which includes organisms produced by gene editing.”

#NotInMySupermarket campaign

The Co-op lead was responding to the #NotInMySupermarket campaign organized by Beyond GM and Slow Food UK.

A joint letter​ drafted by those campaigners, and signed by more than 50 UK leading civil society groups, academics and producers, called for UK supermarkets to respect the wishes of their customers – the majority of whom, say the advocates, oppose genetically engineered foods. They cited a number of surveys to back up that claim. 

The letter also asks the retailers to show leadership by supporting strong regulation of genetically engineered crops and foods and refusing to stock unregulated, unlabelled gene-edited foods in their stores.

Beyond GM and Slow Food UK said they are in dialogue with a number of other supermarkets about the campaign. “We are delighted that Co-op has made a clear first step that others can follow.

Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM, argues that gene-editing is “a technology that creates GMOs and therefore should be regulated in order to protect people and the environment.”

Policy decisions based on 'science and evidence'

But UK environment secretary, George Eustice, believes there are positives that gene editing could bring from breeding crops that perform better to reducing costs for farmers to lowering the impacts on the environment and to helping farming and society adapt to the challenges of climate change. 

“Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence.”

The UK feed industry also welcomed the review. “We have long sought to support sustainable modern commercial agriculture in the UK, and this is the opportunity for our members to put forward their views on this development. We would encourage the industry at large to respond,”​ said trade body, the AIC.

In January, the UK National Pig Association (NPA) also said that gene editing technology could potentially deliver long-term benefits for pig production, including in relation to feed efficiency.  

Related topics: Regulation

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