Major public dialogue must trigger government rethink on gene editing deregulation Bill

Major public dialogue must trigger government rethink on gene editing deregulation Bill

Unbeknownst to many of the general public, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is currently going through Parliament.

What goes in, and what is excluded in the Bill now will determine the use of gene editing in UK farming systems over the coming decades. It is crucial that the Bill follows the latest evidence, allows for adequate scrutiny and also responds to the concerns of the general public.

So, today's published findings of a Government backed public dialogue released by Nuffield Council for Bioethics (NCfB) come at the perfect time. Participants in the dialogue discussed the potential benefits and concerns around the use of gene editing to address some major challenges within our food and farming system, such as animal diseases, environmental impacts and food security. The results give us additional insight into the public’s view on genetic engineering and its implications for farmed animals and for our food systems and security.

Our Head of Policy, Gareth Morgan saidWe really welcome this exercise by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. It’s vital we understand the public concern around genetic engineering of farm animals. This adds to already established evidence that the government’s attempts to steamroller legislation that will deregulate gene editing stands in stark contrast to what the public wants. It is no surprise to learn from the research that the public have questions about “how long-term impacts are understood and how the technology would be steered in the public interest, rather than directed by market forces”. This is yet another opportunity for the government to pause the legislation, reflect on the findings in this new impartial report and start a genuine process of consultation with the public about what sort of food and farming system the UK wishes to develop – which emerged as a key issue for participants in the Nuffield research.

This public dialogue on genetic modification echoes the response we saw to DEFRA's own Genetic Modification deregulation consultation last year and ahead of the planned legislation changes. The response showed that most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported continuing to regulate Gene Edited organisms in the same way as GMOs. Concerns have been further amplified by the government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee giving the assessment of the legislation an unusual “red rating” for inadequate impact assessment.

The NCfB report further highlights the public concern that, left to unconstrained market forces, gene editing of farm animals would lead to further intensification of the farming system with associated welfare concerns. Participants were supportive of a much wider public debate on the governance of gene editing in farmed animals and saw this dialogue as an important part of the process. But they were keen that those involved in the development of the technology listen to their voices, and anticipate their concerns, steering any use of gene editing in farmed animals towards creating a food and farming system designed to prevent welfare problems arising in the first place.

Following the mobilisation of our member base last year, the Soil Association continues to push for the Bill to be significantly amended or even better withdrawn and reconsidered. Soil Association Certification has also equipped all of its organic certified businesses with updates on how the Bill might negatively affect British farming, urging them to lobby the Government. This new report highlights the need to engage the public in the debate, not side-line their genuine concerns.