Skip to main content

Environment & ethics   |   Technology

Gene editing amendment sparks deregulation fears

A late amendment to the Agriculture Bill to change the definition of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the UK post-Brexit has been described as “sneaky” and “underhand” by farming groups and anti-GM groups.

The proposal relates to the classification of gene editing, and a tool known as CRISPR, which edits existing genes rather than inserting new ones, and is being led by Conservative MP and chair of the All-Party group on technology in agriculture, Julian Sturdy. The group want gene editing to be excluded from classification as a genetically modified (GM) food. 

Hopes have rested on the acknowledgement of this difference at a regulatory level to move the polarized GM debate on, according to some, while others fear it is a way of deregulating biotech.

The amendment is backed by the NFU, who say it would allow British farmers to be able to access the same “radical and promising” new gene editing tools for crop breeding as their counterparts across the world to tackle problems such as disease, and use fewer resources while maintaining yields.

Crispr gene editing
Hopes have rested on gene editing, with a tool known as CRISPR, as being able to progress the sector. 

According to campaign group GM Freeze, the purpose of the amendment is to allow ministers to change the definition of a GMO in order to then deregulate newer genetic engineering techniques without further parliamentary scrutiny.

There are also concerns that the move would mark a major division from the EU, where a recent ruling stated that gene editing should be classified as a GMO, plus the unknown element of how far an existing gene can be edited and risks of mutation.

The amendment could be discussed as early as today (10 June) as the second reading of the Bill takes place in the House of Lords, if it is tabled by environment minister George Eustice, a known proponent of GM.

The English government has been vocal in its support for GM technologies, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson using his first address from Downing Street to state his intention to “liberate” the biotech sector. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all banned GM crops and are not likely to favour any changes to definitions.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “Delivery of the Prime Minister’s wish to “liberate the bioscience sector” requires a regulatory system that is fit for purpose.

“The cost of not taking this opportunity is the UK being unable to make use of a set of breeding tools that are already being shown to offer solutions to intractable problems such as the need to protect plants and animals from disease; the need to use fewer resources while maintaining or increasing quality and yield; and the need to produce more nutritious and more sustainable food for both domestic and export markets.”

Director of campaign group GM Freeze, Liz O’Neill, said key concerns included deregulating this form of genetic engineering would allow organisms created in this way to be released into the environment and into food without risk assessments, impact monitoring, traceability or consumer labelling.

In addition, she said changing the UK’s definition of a GMO could significantly impact trade with the EU, and create “unworkable” divides within the UK farming sector if the devolved nations do not follow suit.

“Our understanding of the proposed amendment is that it will pave the way for the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to exempt a wide range of genetic engineering techniques from regulation without further parliamentary scrutiny,” she said.

“This represents a significant shift of power from parliament to government, reducing democratic accountability on a sensitive and hotly debated issue.”

Campaign group Beyond GM has called the late-stage amendment around gene editing "underhanded" in a piece criticising it as trying to avoid democratic scrutiny and is urging people to write to Eustice. In a written blog post, the group highlights the late stage addition of gene editing to the Bill, where it was not initially included.

"The proposal is a blatant attempt to sidestep rigorous parliamentary scrutiny and avoid transparent debate on a crucial issue which has widespread implications for the farming and food sector and consumer choice," reads the statement from Beyond GM. 

In their response, the Landworkers Alliance said: “The only reason to rush this amendment is to fudge the science and avoid transparency. It’s sneaky and underhanded and we will be writing to the Secretary of State and to members of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Group to object to this proposal."



1 Year 3 Months

This is terrible news. Very underhanded

The article mentions an English Government - this should say UK Government. Sadly the people of England do not have a Government of their own.

1 Reply

view replies


1 Year 3 Months

There are campaigners for English independence on twitter and Facebook you can join.
Without help there will be no english government.

0 Reply

Diana J Newson

1 Year 3 Months

The only difference between CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and previous GM is that CRISPR has a targeting sequence in the gene cassette that hybridises with a particular sequence in the genome (the target gene). It's been likened to cut and paste in a single page document but is more like automatic find and replace in a very long book (or several very long books). Companies resist precise safety testing, I wonder why. De-regulating this would be senseless as the safety issues remain the same.

0 Reply


1 Year 3 Months

We have written to George Eustice and our MP and to Keir Starmer. It is disgraceful. I fear we are being taken for fools. Total control and Brave New World.

0 Reply

Wicked Leeks issue 7 is out now

With a focus on regenerative farming, a cover interview with ethical restaurateur Asma Khan and we answer your questions on price, plastic and organic farming. Plus the joy of seasonal summer eating.

Read more

Ethical organic veg boxes

Riverford Organic Farmers, leading the Veg Revolution since 1986.

Shop Riverford

Guy's news...

Founder of Riverford Guy Singh-Watson writes a weekly column with news from the farm and more...

Read more

Join the Wicked Leeks community

Sign up for the newsletter and receive the five latest stories, once a week. Wicked Leeks magazine is published by organic veg box company Riverford.

Spread the word

The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.