Gene editing wars: Experts warn FSA is misleading public

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/nicolas_
© GettyImages/nicolas_

Related tags gene editing Defra GMO genetically modified FSA

Campaigners representing UK business, farming, certification, academia, and science have lodged a complaint against the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), raising concerns about its public consultation process on precision bred organisms for use in animal feed and food.

They are calling for the consultation to be withdrawn, alleging multiple breaches of the UK Cabinet Office consultation principles and serious misrepresentation of the facts, which the signatories claim call into question the integrity of the agency.

The FSA consultation​, which was launched on November 8 2023, aims to elicit the views of consumers, UK and international food/feed businesses and industry trade bodies, UK local authorities and port health authorities, non-government organisations/civil society and third-party assurance organisations on the agency's plans to create a new regulatory regime for food and animal feed produced from precision bred organisms (PBOs), as part of the Genetic Technology Act 2023.

That Act, which passed into law in March​ this year, and the substance of which applies in England, contains powers for the UK secretary of state to make secondary legislation around market introduction of PBOs for food and feed in England.

Proponents say the new legislation​ will unlock key technologies to improve food security, reduce pesticide use, and enhance climate-resilience in crops. They maintain that precision breeding involves using technologies such as gene editing to adapt the genetic code of organisms – creating beneficial traits in plants that through traditional, breeding would take decades to achieve.

Opponents argue the regulation only benefits the biotech industry.  

Misleading information 

The 10 signatories to the complaint ​contend that the information within the consultation pack is misleading, specifically regarding the nature of precision breeding and the science around its safety.

They question the claimed independence of the FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) and its subcommittee, involved in providing scientific advice to the FSA on the safety of PBOs. Moreover, the group alleges that the agency has, in several instances, seriously misrepresented the results of its own public surveys, and a literature review it commissioned into detection of PBOs in order to create a narrative designed to influence the outcome of the consultation.

The group argues that accessibility and clarity are paramount for genuine public participation and they claim the consultation materials are overly complex, thus creating a barrier for the general public, and indeed anyone who has not been immersed in the PBO debate, to fully engage and contribute meaningfully.

In addition, they address the perceived lack of time allocated for respondents to comprehensively analyse the consultation pack and respond to the consultation - eight weeks instead of the gold standard 12 weeks.

Moreover, the experts said the timing of the consultation, coming over the Christmas and New Year period, will mean potential respondents may not be able to engage. “Cabinet Office principles specifically advise against consultations over holiday periods.”

Impact assessment

The complaint also criticises the FSA for failing to perform a full impact assessment on its plans to remove labelling and traceability from PBOs in the food and feed system.

“Impact assessment is a critical component in evaluating potential consequences – across the whole range of stakeholders – of regulatory decisions related to precision bred organisms.

“Instead, FSA has relied heavily on a highly discredited impact assessment performed by Defra in 2022 and rated as “not fit for purpose” by the Regulatory Policy Committee. 

The signatories are demanding an immediate withdrawal and postponement of the current consultation until these problems can be addressed, ensuring a fair, transparent, and accessible public engagement process that aligns with established guidelines and principles. 

Opponents on the gene editing policy: Lack of traceability, complex language, only biotechs benefit, bad science 

Shane Holland, executive chairman, Slow Food in the UK, said that it is "a false assumption" that any business opposed to GM precision bred ingredients would solely be within the organic supply chain.

"There will be a significant cost within the artisan food business who may buy from producers who are too small to merit obtaining organic certification but who nether the less wish to ensure that their products can demonstrate that they have a non-GM supply chain. There is likely not sufficient additional testing capacity for these businesses, and the costs would be prohibitive... This lack of traceability also affects the larger food businesses who export their products, who may have to demonstrate their products to be GM/PBO free. No analysis on the effect of lost export sales from all food businesses, or the artisan food sector has been proposed or carried out.”

Claire Robinson, co-director, GMWatch, commenting on this feedback process, said it violates the standards of the UK government’s consultation principles. "It is marred by false and misleading statements, which all tend in the same direction: To try to justify the UK government’s determination to hide new GMOs in the food and farming system and remove any meaningful regulatory oversight. The consultation document is long and uses mystifying acronyms, as well as references to various laws on food and agriculture, making it inaccessible to all but a few specialists.”

Michael Antoniou, professor of molecular genetics and toxicology at King’s College London, focused on the science:

“Not only is this consultation misleading and anti-democratic, but it also misrepresents the science underpinning gene editing. Gene editing is prone to causing a wide range of unintended DNA damage, altering patterns of gene function and consequently the biochemistry of the organism, which could lead to the production of unexpected toxins and allergens. Citizens should be protected against these risks. Yet as the FSA’s consultation materials show, the agency has produced a weak regulatory framework that will not oblige the developer to investigate their products for unintended genetic damage or compositional changes that could endanger health or the environment.”

Erik Millstone, emeritus professor of science policy, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, also weighed in on the new legislation.

“The government’s policy on gene edited foods is dangerously irresponsible. Ministers are favouring short-term commercial interests of biotechnology corporations and neglecting the protection of public and environmental health. Ministers are pretending to have sufficient robust knowledge about the consequences of commercialising the new technology, while ignoring all the experts and the evidence indicating that our knowledge is rudimentary, dreadfully incomplete, and uncertain. They are only listening to the advice of those who have been selected to tell them what they want to hear."

And, in a separate letter​ to the FSA, GM Freeze said the timing of the consultation is either administratively inept or a cynical attempt to stifle responses from those who will be most affected.

GM Freeze executive director, Leonie Nimmo, said. “The proposed new framework could profoundly change the relationships and trust between suppliers, retailers and consumers, yet the timing of the consultation is likely to have a chilling impact on the ability of consumer-focussed businesses to respond.”

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