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.
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."