By Pat Thomas, Director, Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation: Regulation by Stealth bringing GMOs to English Farms.
How we produce food matters. It matters for the environment, for welfare and for safety. It matters to the farmer, to the consumer and to the chef.
Our farmers are currently locked into a system of high inputs, profligate energy use and waste and environmental destruction. Nothing short of radical change will break this lock-in and yet there appears to be no change in sight. In fact, in England, we are about to create a new lock-in that could be even harder to break.
Using a statutory instrument – a form of secondary legislation that can be simply nodded through Parliament – the government is currently trying to slip through new legislation that will open up England’s fields to experimental plantings of genome edited (GMO) crops.
The proposal creates a hypothetical subset of GMOs which, it claims, “could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding”. Using this, the new law will remove requirements for risk assessments and for researchers to seek permission before planting GMO crops.
This subset of GMOs is not recognised in science, in law or in other international regulations.
Deregulation is being spun as necessary to advance the science of GMOs, to make field trials easier and less expensive. But the substance of the amendment does not specify field trials and experimental plantings will not be restricted to bona fide researchers who have experience and protocols in place. The amendment seeks to exempt this subset of GMOs for ALL USES except for marketing.
In other words, it opens the door for anyone to develop, import and plant any qualifying gene-edited plant for non-marketing purposes. So, field trials, certainly, but also demonstration fields, educational field labs and/or multiplication for e.g., experimental seed stocks.
If passed, experimental GMO crops can be planted in any field in England, including next door to organic, biodynamic and other dedicated non-GMO farms.
Simplistic, unscientific and problematic
Responses to Defra’s 2021 Public Consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies revealed a large degree of scepticism amongst relevant bodies, specialists and experts about DEFRA’s contention that GMOs which “could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding” should form the basis of scientifically sound regulation. For instance, according to Filling in the Blanks – What Defra Didn’t Say, an alternative analysis of the public consultation by A Bigger Conversation:
- The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), called it “overly simplistic”
- The Microbiology Society said it was “purely philosophical”
- The Royal Society called it “problematic”
- The Royal Society of Biology said it provided “no clear criteria” and further noted that “no clarity can be achieved using this principle” and “we would not recommend using it as the basis for regulation”
- The FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) said that it is “too simplistic with regards to the science” and that it is “first necessary to have clarity on what constitutes traditional breeding”. On the question of risk, it notes that it would “not be possible to say categorically that any modification made via genome editing will present a similar risk to a product from traditional breeding unless it was clearly demonstrated that an equivalent outcome had been achieved”
The government is ignoring all of this as well as the 85% of respondents to the consultation who said that new gene editing technologies should continue to be regulated in the same way as all GMOs.
Substantial equivalence redux
The “could have occurred naturally” argument is a rehashed version of the notion of “substantial equivalence” which has been used for decades to justify the way the Americas have embraced GMO crops.
Substantial equivalence looks superficially at the characteristics of food crops – their chemical make-up, such as macro- and micro-nutrients and toxic or allergenic molecules – to see whether these are within a ‘normal range’ seen in similar non-GM plants or foods.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this as a starting point, but substantial equivalence was never meant to function as proof of safety or even quality, nor is it a statement of potential environmental impacts. Its purpose was to reduce the time it took to bring GM crops the market. It also lowered the overall production cost and, by extension, allowed the commercial product to be priced competitively. It uses a narrow ‘checklist’ of tests because longer, more detailed testing would incur significant costs and raise uncomfortable issues around need and sustainability.
The design of substantial equivalence favoured the biotechnology and agricultural industry; and so it is with “could have occurred naturally…” which ignores the systemic nature of farming and its impacts.
Following the pseudo-science
When the concept of substantial equivalence was first raised in the late 1990s, a paper in Nature deemed it “a pseudo-scientific concept because it is a commercial and political judgement masquerading as if it were scientific. It is, moreover, inherently anti-scientific because it was created primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests. It therefore serves to discourage and inhibit potentially informative scientific research.”
Over the course of 25 years, little has changed. The media-friendly concept “could have occurred naturally” has emerged, but like substantial equivalence, which never benefitted from any standardised definition, “could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding” has also yet to be defined – and yet we are on the brink of incorporating it into law.
The secondary legislation currently winding its way through Parliament has not been without criticism. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has just published a report noting that the context of the legislative change, i.e., the government’s plans for wider reform, is not clear, that key documents such as criteria for defining “could have occurred naturally…”, an environmental assessment and information on how the new law will impact devolved nations, are missing.
The SLSC makes reference to its own devastating report, Government by Diktat: A call to return power to Parliament, to reiterate its concerns about the increasing use of secondary legislation to make significant policy change.
It concludes “Given the interest in, and concerns about, policy relating to GMOs, including in the House during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, and the number of issues that this instrument in particular has raised, in part caused by the absence of the associated guidance, we see strength in the argument that primary, rather than secondary, legislation would have been more appropriate in this case.”
The SLSC does not have the power to stop the legislation but its comments, which come ahead of the Instrument’s consideration by the House of Lords, should give everyone pause.
We are on the brink of changing the UK’s Environmental Protection Act so that it is more accommodating to corporate interests and are being sold a narrative that this is for the public good.
We deserve an open, honest, inclusive, good faith discussion about the future of food and farming, about what sustainability looks like, about where our boundaries lie, the values that underpin so-called ‘innovation’, what our relationship with emerging technologies is and the role, if any, that genetic technologies have to play in food production.
Regulation by stealth is a top-down power play that prevents that discussion from ever happening.
- Pat Thomas is a director of Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation
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