With Brexit and the great unshackling from EU regulations that’s to come, this could be a pivotal year for genetically-modified (GM) food.
“Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules,” was one of the first things Boris Johnson said on the steps of Downing Street when he became Prime Minister, prompting the debate around GM to resurface.
It comes as Britain departs from an EU that has largely curtailed GM crops to date, and starts to look towards a US trade deal, which could see rules relaxed on genetically modified foods, seeds and farming.
“The British government has given several indications that it intends to adjust the regulatory framework so that innovative biotechnologies including GM and gene editing will not be blocked from deployment,” explains Professor Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, who’s worked on GM for 37 years, particularly on potatoes that are resistant to blight.
GM crops remain controversial throughout Europe, with little planted in the field, while in the UK, they are banned from being grown commercially altogether. Across the world, meanwhile, they are grown on 190 million-plus hectares of land – an area the size of Indonesia – across 26 countries but primarily in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India
Corn, soybean, cotton and oilseed rape make up the vast majority of GM crops, which have had their genetic code modified by scientists using DNA from other species, while trials are taking place on other crops like tomatoes and potatoes. Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are popular traits, while nutrient-focused improvements are being worked on as possibilities for the future.
They are developed and sold mainly by a handful of global agri-biotech firms, which also dominate non-GM markets, including Corteva, Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta.
“We should start with some fundamental questions about GM crops. What problems are we trying to solve? Who does the technology empower, who does it disempower and who owns it? How does it promote resilience and fairness, if at all? Only by addressing these questions can we have a meaningful debate and avoid slipping back into a binary ‘for or against’ discussion,” explains Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council.
The rise of gene editing
It’s this ‘for or against’ discussion, plus powerful public opposition, which has largely stymied further development of GM foods, particularly in Europe.
But in recent years, a new process known as gene editing has come to the fore that could be about to change the debate.
It’s described as one of the biggest technical breakthroughs in this field and involves altering existing genes, rather than adding foreign DNA to a plant. As such, scientists had hoped it would avoid the regulatory scrutiny that GM crops experienced, arguing that the process is closer to non-genetic methods agronomists have used to create new varieties for centuries.
However, France’s top administrative court ruled in January that gene editing should be subject to GMO regulations, following a similar ban by the EU two years ago. In the eyes of European law, it looks like GM and gene-edited crops are on the same legal footing.
Attitudes among public and farmers are polls apart
Aside from the Prime Minister’s warm words, have attitudes changed towards ‘modified’ foods? More than three quarters of UK farmers say they’ll adopt GM crops if regulations changed, according to a poll by the industry magazine Farmers Guardian. But this is at stark odds with public opinion. A Countryfile Live poll found that shoppers are still largely resistant to knowingly purchasing GM foods.
“Consumer acceptance remains a key issue. Understanding of GM technology is poor. I’m not sure that much has shifted in people’s perception and how this could be changed. Probably not by politicians saying the techniques are okay,” says Dr Dylan Bradley, director of agribusiness consultancy firm, Agra CEAS Consulting.
Advocates of GM and gene editing talk of replacing chemical control with genetics, which means potentially less insecticides, lower herbicide use and, in the case of blight resistant potatoes, potentially less food waste.
But if the UK did start planting GM crops, those farmers wouldn’t be able to export their food to Europe. “No farmer will plant a crop that nobody wants to buy,” explains Professor Johnson.
There could also be an issue with cross-contamination with non-GM and organic crops. This has occurred in France and Germany after traces of GMOs banned for cultivation were found in seeds, while in Spain, organic growers have also been affected by the use of GM corn.
For some, the issue of food sustainability is just too multifaceted to be solved by one technology.
“Farming systems are complex, and problems should be solved by adjusting the system, not by making adjustments at a genetic level,” says Dr Julia Wright, associate professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.
“I have not come across any research evaluating the effectiveness of GM crops that includes a comparison with an agro-ecological alternative. Trials only comprise the GM crop versus non-GM crop, whatever the problem may be,” she says.
A GM crossroads?
While GM food has already rejoined the debate as the national conversation grows around the future of British food and farming, it’s unclear whether polarised scientific opinions will ever meet in the middle.
“By using GM crops we’re tying farmers into dependence on purchased seed and further inputs, whereas we know from a perspective of resilience that farmers need to be growing a diverse range of varieties and saving their own seed where possible in order to achieve local adaptation to climate change,” says Dr Wright.
For others, the potential for GM and gene editing to reduce the use of agrochemicals remains a powerful benefit.
“It would primarily replace chemical control, with genetic control. A huge benefit of using genetics instead of chemistry is that it only targets insects or microbes that grow on the crop,” explains Professor Jones, adding that, as an example, blight in potatoes causes huge crop losses every year and requires frequent agrochemical application.
“The approach we are taking should provide such solutions for many important crop diseases,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the UK, it’s not illegal to feed GM crops to pigs, cattle, poultry or fish, and meat and dairy products fed on GM animal feed aren’t labelled as such in British supermarkets.
“Shoppers aren’t always aware of what’s in their food. The only way to avoid GM is to buy organic,” explains Steven Jacobs, business development manager at organic certification scheme, Organic Farmers and Growers. “People need to trust their food supplies are genuine.”
Despite the complexity and lack of transparency in labelling, and as Brexit shapes the food system of tomorrow, it’s clear that GM or gene editing could one day play a much bigger role.
GM foods: On trial in the UK
Blight-resistant Maris Piper potatoes (made by inserting genes from wild potato varieties) – Sainsbury Laboratory
Purple-flesh tomatoes (inserting genes with high anti-oxidants and anthocyanins normally found in blueberries and blackberries) – Norwich Plant Sciences/John Innes Centre
Omega 3-rich Camelina (plants that produce fish oil and could help replace fish farming) – Rothamsted Research
Gene-edited brassica (focusing on sulphur content of brassica plants and improving micronutrient density – John Innes Centre
Iron-rich wheat (to enhance iron density in wheat and tackle global public health iron deficiency) - John Innes Centre