As summer gets into full swing, it seems we are still no closer to seeing a report from the UK government on deregulating gene edited crops and foods in the UK.
Government guidelines state that such reports should be published within 3 months of the closure of a consultation. We therefore would have expected something on 17 June. The guidelines also state that if there is a delay in producing the report government should explain what that delay is. Repeated appeals to Defra have been met with boilerplate responses about publishing “later this summer” but no reason for the delay has been forthcoming.
Should we read anything – good or bad – into this? Probably not. For a variety of reasons, government departments seem to be overwhelmed at the moment. Parliament is now on its summer recess and although this does not preclude the publication of the report before September, it perhaps makes it a little less likely. The truth is we could see a report tomorrow or in several months’ time. When we know, you will know.
UK government lays down markers
In the meantime, the government has laid down several worrying markers. A new consultation, launched 22 July, seeks public views on the more widespread removal of regulations from all kinds of industries which, it is claimed, will pave the way for innovation and on replacing the Precautionary Principle with a so-called Proportionality Principle.
The idea of a Proportionality Principle in UK regulations was proposed (but not fully elaborated upon) in the May 2021 Taskforce on Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) report. The agri-tech section of that report is essentially a love letter to genome editing and, if its recommendations are acted upon, it pushes us closer to amending the definition of ‘genetically engineered’ in section 106 the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Food Standards Agency – building “public trust” in GMOs
There’s good news and bad news from the UK’s Food Standards Agency. Topline results from its research project, Consumer perceptions of genome edited food, reveal that “consumers wanted thorough regulation and transparent labelling if GE foods reach the UK market”.
The report showed that consumers had a range of nuanced concerns about issues like food safety, animal welfare, regulation, transparency, consumer choice, who really benefits and environmental concerns. But the depressing overall impression of the report is that if only consumers understood genetic modification better these concerns would vanish.
What’s The Plan?
On 15 July, the National Food Strategy Part 2 report (“The Plan“) was published. While not primarily concerned with genetic engineering, the report does contain language that is supportive of genetic technologies as a ‘tool’ of sustainability (and some of its language mirrors that of the Dasgupta Report which made very strong recommendations in this direction).
The Plan’s focus on meat analogues is particularly worrying because, a) it positions taking food production off the land and away from farmers as a key sustainability goal, b) it ignores the use of genetic engineering in producing these analogues and the huge data gaps around issues like safety, nutritional equivalence, unintentional environmental releases, pollution and resource (energy/water) use; and c) the assumption that we need meat ‘replacements’ – i.e. that we must substitute one market with another – is an entrepreneurial solution not an environmental or nutritional one.
Essential reading and viewing
While we await some movement from Defra here’s some summer reading:
The new narrative around genome editing is that it is “the same as normal breeding” or “just like traditional breeding”. The Defra consultation and the PR around it, as noted above, was rich with this kind of language. But as a recent article from our A Bigger Conversation website explains, it can’t be ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ if it is linked to patents and intellectual rights.
While the reception to the National Food Strategy’s The Plan has been mostly positive, there is also plenty to question. But, as our critique notes, it avoids the hard stuff, the compromises and trade-offs that need to be made to achieve ‘sustainability’, as well as values, ideologies and power hierarchies that lock us in to unsustainable behaviours and business-as-usual.
Finally our webinar, GMO 2.0 – Can local Food Chains Survive the Threat of Gene Editing, hosted by the CSA Network, aimed to bring those involved in local and regional food production up to speed on the latest developments in genetic engineering and to provide an agroecological framework for thinking and talking about the ‘new GMOs’. If you missed it you can now view it here. There is also a fact sheet summing up the webinar, which can be downloaded from the CSA Network website (as well as from our publications page).
Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward
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Hospitality & Catering News: No sight of government’s report on deregulating gene edited crops and foods in the UK. – 28 July 2021 – No sight of government’s report on deregulating gene edited crops and foods in the UK.
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