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‘Gene editing’ free for all spell problems for sustainable food production

‘Gene editing’ free for all spells problems for sustainable food production

Much to our dismay, and despite our best efforts to halt it, shoddy legislation to unleash a genetic modification free for all in the UK is currently sailing through parliament. The House of Lords is debating the Genetic Technologies Bill as I write. We urge them to make the serious changes necessary to protect animal welfare, the environment, organic farmers, and citizen choice.

What’s happening with gene-editing?

As part of post-Brexit plans to sweep away safeguards protecting us and the environment, the government are keen to “cut red tape” on gene-editing. As GM-Freeze puts it, "gene-editing is genetic modification (GM) with better PR".

Both involve changing a plant or animal’s DNA in a lab. Any GMO that can be argued to be hypothetically possible through traditional breeding, will be redefined as ‘precision bred organisms’ and treated as if they had been traditionally bred. This remit is designed to be as wide as possible and as a result, the bill is broad and confusing. It's easy to see how problematic this could be - a company could argue that, after millions of years, their extremely unlikely and unprecedented novel changes, might have been possible, and so be counted.

The House of Lords is in the process of considering the bill. They can either pass it into law or send it back to the Commons with demands for change. We think it’s vital they demand changes to the bill, and here’s why:

Animals must be protected from Genetic Modification.

Despite massive opposition from citizens and campaign groups, animals (and not just livestock) remain in the bill. We agree with the RSPB that there are not enough safeguards to protect animals, and we would prefer to see animals removed outright.

The public does not want this - but the government ignore this.

The debate so far in the Lords suggests many peers share our concerns. The well-known scientist, Lord Winston, for example, talked about unintended abnormalities in animals at the research stage, the loss of genetic diversity and resilience – and worrying commercial influence. 

The latter issue came out strongly in a public dialogue. Citizens were given a rare chance to discuss existing problems in our food system and the role of gene editing. They raised a major concern that gene editing could help to further advance bad breeding practices that are already putting animals under huge strain.

A new report from Compassion in World Farming was the latest to reiterate how modern livestock breeding has already pushed animals’ bodies to painful and unhealthy limits. This has all been in the effort to produce as much cheap meat, eggs and milk as possible.

The bill’s trivial attempts on welfare don't do enough to protect animals from this single-minded commercial drive to breed for intensive production. This is especially concerning given the impact of intensive livestock production on our planetary boundaries.

There are also implications for wildlife. There are no plans for environmental risk assessments prior to authorisation. Allowing unpreceded genetic change without screening means we could have crops designed to be insecticidal to pests, that have undergone no safety assessment as to toxicity to wildlife.

Case study: chickens don’t need genetic engineering

Chickens are the reason why the government think animals should stay in the bill. The argument is that gene-edited disease-resistant chickens could solve bird flu. Aside from our general opposition to GM in animals, this ignores the fact that taking animals out of this bill doesn’t ban GMO animals, it just ensures they are subject to higher safety checks. The research is also years away from scientists knowing if it will ever work.

In the meantime, efforts to engineer chickens to make them ever more productive are likely.

Chickens are a key example of how breeding can go wrong. There are two chicken breeds that dominate the UK market, designed to grow explosively fast. They have helped enabled chicken to even become cheaper than chips, but with appalling consequences for the birds including lameness as their legs buckle under their rapid weight gain. These fast-growing breeds have helped prop up an ever-expanding intensive poultry sector that is a potential source of disease – as is any population kept in high numbers, at high intensity, indoors with little genetic diversity and poor health.

Consumers have the right to a choice

Again, flying in the face of public opinion – with 85% of people in the public consultation opposed to the deregulation of gene editing – our freedom of choice is being stripped away.

No food labels are planned to inform people that their food has been subjected to this type of genetic modification. The bill also doesn’t require traceability for businesses using gene-edited organisms.

The government’s bill also has no plans to address gene-edited traits that could escape into the wider environment, for example by being spread through dispersed seeds and cross-pollination by insects and wind.

This could also have serious implications for organic products, which currently offer shoppers the promise of no GM, as these practices are banned within the strictly regulated organic standards.

This all leads to there being no way for citizens to choose foods that are free from gene editing. We think this is a big mistake.

Allowing Gene Editing may create trade barriers

It also creates an unnecessary risk of major trade disruption to organic businesses and those that trade with the EU.

The government hopes the EU, our main trading partner, will follow with similar deregulation. However, given the shoddy legislation being put forward here, any EU changes that do occur, may not adopt the same approach. Certainly, animals and their products, appear to be off the table. As a result, UK exports may face trade barriers due to concerns over what would be considered unauthorised and unlabelled GMOs.

Again, trade barriers are a major concern for the organic sector where international organic standards continue to prohibit genetically modified foods, including those branded under gene editing and precision breeding. The EU for example requires GM labelling of these foods and any contaminated foods over strict low thresholds. 

Continued ignorance of this issue will undermine our nature-friendly farming pioneers, flying in the face of the UK government’s climate and nature goals and risking all our of futures.

We must have traceability and labelling. We have been highlighting this through a letter to the previous Secretary of State and MP briefings from our organic licensees, but the message isn’t getting through.

There is no public interest in gene editing – only a corporate one

It isn’t a great situation that two companies – agrichemical giants Bayer and Corteva – now control 40% of the commercial seed market

While lining the pockets of a select few, market monopolies stifle innovation and the diversity of breeds being used. We end up with ‘breed monocultures’ where we are reliant on a very select few breeds across the whole UK. That’s bad news when we are facing increasingly unpredictable weather or inevitable disease outbreaks. We urgently need resilience through genetic diversity – as nature intended.

The Bill worsens these issues, given that gene-editing organisms are highly patentable. There is a real risk of farmers being coerced into expensive contracts where they must buy seed every year, instead of saving it.

Furthermore, there is nothing to stop current breeding methods from breeding resilient plants that produce high yields with little to no chemicals or increasing the nutritional quality in plants that suit healthy diets. The truth is that this focus on nature and public health is not what the market currently demands from plant breeders.

We need genetically diverse plants with these kinds of sustainable and healthy traits. We need to change the priorities for breeding, not the methods.  

Farmers must also be empowered to be less reliant on products from big businesses. They need freedom and support to lead research into nature-friendly farming practices and resilient plants.

Gene editing is a distraction from agroecology

To prioritise a genetic engineering de-regulation Bill smacks of a government casting about for silver bullets. It avoids dealing head-on with the transformation needed in our food and farming system for true security and resilience.

As the chicken case study above demonstrates, all the bill does is risk more of the same catastrophic farming practices that have landed us in hot water.

It will also take many years for this technology to get results – we are a long way away from any real evidence that gene-edited seeds or animal breeds will have any positive environmental impacts.

Our Head of Food Policy Rob Percival recently told BBC Farming Today broadcast about how it is the wrong solution after the show heard from a scientist about how the theory is largely untested and there are many unknowns.

But the good news is that we already have a tried and tested solution backed by science, which can be put into action and start delivering results right now. That solution is a shift to nature-friendly, agroecological, regenerative farming – such as organic farmers and others who avoid chemical inputs and protect soils. 

This is the most evidence-based solution for climate, nature and health, having been recommended by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy and a recent report by Chatham House.

The House of Lords could fix things.

There are so many issues relating to this Bill, with little to no analysis of these from the government and the bill has also failed to be underpinned by the usually required evidence.

So far the debate at the House of Lords has helpfully discussed the problems for animals, as well as the need for labelling. This has even come from those who see the merit of the technology. Let’s hope that peers dig deeper into the science and the bigger issues at play here. Even if peers and MPs won’t vote it down we hope they will help amend this Bill. 

The list is long, but some priorities are:

  • Don’t do this to animals
  • Make traceability and labelling mandatory to protect UK businesses, particularly organic, and citizen choice
  • A less legally vague and more risk-based definition of gene-edited organisms
  • Ensure risks are better addressed, especially unintentional risks to wildlife
  • Ensure gene editing does not go down the same path as traditional breeding through a public goods test that requires benefits to the environment, not to corporate interests
  • Seek a government commitment towards addressing the deeper, greater issues in plant and animal breeding, ensuring a move away from intensive farming methods and a shift to resilient, agroecological farming