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Genetic engineered foods are not the solution for sustainable farming

Say no to GMO

The UK government has just announced plans to deregulate certain forms of genetic engineering, starting in research field trials and moving on to foods. This could spell disaster for sustainable farming in the UK.

The latest plans relate to genetic engineering used to produce organisms that “could have been developed by traditional breeding”. What this means in practice and therefore where lines are drawn has not yet been defined in any government announcements.

But the aim to make it easier for people to alter the genes of plants, and potentially animals too, is clear. This flies in the face of their own consultation.

British people do not want deregulation

Earlier this year, DEFRA held a consultation asking people what they thought about removing regulations around certain forms of genetic engineering they refer to as ‘gene editing’. This received over 3,000 respondents - many of our own supporters responded to the difficult and lengthy consultation - thanks!

Today – the same day they announced deregulation for gene-editing in plant research – they also published the results of that consultation. Approximately 85% of responses were against deregulation.

Contrary to this response, DEFRA has announced plans to deregulate anyway.

Gene-editing will drive forward profits, not sustainable farming

There is a key difference with any genetically engineered organisms that the government continue to ignore. They can be heavily patented and therefore play heavily towards corporate, interests, rather than environmental benefits. It also removes yet more independence and control for farmers over the unique challenges they face on their own farms.

DEFRA have high hopes for gene-editing, listing theoretical benefits for climate, nature and health, much of which are blue-sky research ideas or only in the early stages of development.

But what is to stop profit-driven interests taking over from, and overpowering these hopes? How do we avoid farmers losing even more control of their crops seeds? How do we prevent crops being designed to sell more pesticides, not less? What happens to farmers if the gene-edited products don’t deliver what’s promised, as has so often been the case for GM crops?

Here is a glimpse of the corporate interests affecting crop breeding

Just four companies control more than 60% of the global seed supply. These same companies also control much of the market for chemicals used in agriculture, predicted to be around $300 billion dollars by 2025. It is in the financial interest of these companies to:

  • Shift their seeds to genetic engineered ones so they can be patented.
  • Continuing selling breeds designed for high pesticide or fertiliser use. Any breeds marketed at cutting use, would need to drive more profit in other ways, such as through the sale of the seeds. Or by distracting from, and displacing the threat of, more sustainable practices that would cut far more pesticide use
  • Prevent farmer seed saving, which allows farmers to breed locally adaptive varieties, essential to reducing chemical use and resilience to extreme weather.
  • Prevent a rise in locally developed seed varieties from small research institutes that would compete with their products

The odd thing is that if the government were serious about improving crop breeding for the public’s benefit, they would be talking about resolving these risks, not hiding them.

We need more investment in solutions we know already work.

The Soil Association is calling for a commitment to better, not weaker, regulation on genetic engineering and more support for farmers to adopt agroecological methods that support nature, as called for in the National Food Strategy.

Even genetically engineered traits that sound useful, can be unhelpful distractions. For example, changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them immune to disease is not a long-term solution. The fix is temporary as diseases invariably overcome the resistant genes.

We should be investing in solutions that tackle the underlying problems in our food system, such as the reasons behind disease and pests in the first place.

In plants, for example, this means tackling the market pressure placed on farmers to grow a limited number of the same crops repeatedly. Growing too much of the same takes a toll on soils. Pests and disease build up, requiring intensive chemical treatments. Shifting to a diverse range of crops (and planting more trees on farms) is necessary to tackle pest and disease in the first place. This would help us to store more carbon in soils and reverse the decline in beneficial insects (predatory bugs that eat the pests).

When it comes to animals, instead of altering a pig’s DNA so it is disease resistant, we should stop overcrowding in intensive animal farming which is the root cause of much of the disease.

Fund farmer-led research into sustainable methods

A real game changer would be if the government announced grand plans to take down the barriers preventing farmers from diversifying crops or plans to dramatically improve the conditions of indoor pigs and poultry.

But overall, we need Government to reverse the historic lack of investment in agroecological, nature-friendly methods and farmer-led technology. This is necessary to increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms, to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.

Our recent AgroEcoTech report outlines how instead of just tweaking the status quo, technologies like remote sensing and artificial intelligence can help farmers adopt agroecological methods that work with nature to solve deeper problems.

No clear line between gene-editing and genetic modification

The government have side stepped the complexity and questions about where you draw the line as to what is, and what isn’t, a novel DNA change. This needs urgent clarification.

In genetics, the term ‘gene editing’ is NOT usually used to mean genetic engineering which ‘mimics natural processes of breeding’. It refers to a range of techniques which can be summarised as using a specially designed protein to target and cut an area of DNA, in order to delete, replace or insert a DNA sequence.

These techniques mean that, even if you don’t then insert DNA from another species, you can still make changes that aren’t easy through traditional breeding. For example, you can target areas of genes normally protected from mutations, or rapidly accumulate multiple DNA changes, to achieve results that would be very difficult through traditional breeding.

Gene-edited food should be labelled

At a minimum, UK shoppers should be reassured that other products will not be cross-contaminated by gene-editing trials or foods. That includes the organic market. The government urgently needs to commit to this – and provide vital information on how cross-contamination of gene-edited and non-gene-edited products will be avoided so people can be confident in what they are buying.

Pause for thought

The inventor of one of the techniques, Jennifer Doudna, has called for a global pause in using this technology to edit human embryos, given the huge ethical considerations around designer babies. But she has warned not only about humans, but the wider power of this technology. Targeted direct DNA edits allow you to speed up breeding in startling ways, and this power demands respect:

“It really is a profound thing….it really gives humans now, the power to control the evolution of organisms in our environment, and also potentially our own evolution, in a very targeted fashion…it is exciting, it is enabling…but it also brings a sense of awe and a feeling that we need to proceed with a sense of caution and respect for this powerful technology”

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