British people won’t thank the NFU for its stance on gene editing

22 July 2020 — The Grocer

By Joanna Blythman, food journalist and author of Swallow This

Farmers’ popularity has shot up. The general public used to ignore them, or view them as subsidy junkies. Now, as the people who put food on our plates during the Covid-19 crisis, they are enjoying levels of gratitude unprecedented since the Second World War.

The NFU has increased this goodwill by campaigning to prevent the import of US foods produced in ways that would be illegal here. Its high-profile petition to that effect gathered over one million signatures, and certainly heaped pressure on the multiples to say no to chlorinated chicken.

But this tentative trust the public feels towards farmers would surely evaporate if consumers realised the NFU was lobbying hard for ‘gene editing’ – that’s turbocharged genetic engineering, only with a less threatening name. The NFU backed an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would allow ministers to change the law in England. It would mean that gene editing would not be classified as genetic modification, and could just be slipped quietly into our food system, even though the underlying safety risks it poses are the same.

So if the NFU is truly defending higher UK food standards, why is it simultaneously enabling the introduction of this controversial, risky technology that the British public, if asked, would surely reject?

The NFU’s true essence is showing here. It’s an English, not a UK-wide ‘national’ organisation, which is why it’s not unduly bothered if its gene editing stance puts it at odds with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These devolved nations have banned GM crops, and feel no need to change the definition.

The NFU isn’t really a union either, in the one-member-one-vote sense. It doesn’t represent the interests of each and every farmer, but enjoys a special relationship with the corporate-controlled agribiz lobby. Lawyers acting on behalf of the NFU have been in court battling to overturn an EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to harming bees. And as payouts for human health damage caused by glyphosate pile up in the US, NFU spokespeople take to the airwaves to say that they can’t farm without it.

That petition? I signed it, but the NFU is no people’s food champion.

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