Westminster “breaking own rules” with genetically modified food consultation

24 February 2021 — Outline

Boris Johnson expressed a desire to change the law around genetically modified food on his first day in office

Boris Johnson expressed a desire to change the law around genetically modified food on his first day in office

THE London Government has been accused of breaking its own rules with its recently launched consultation on the introduction of genetically edited (GE) foods into the UK.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) consultation was launched on January 7 with a view to change the law around GE foods.

Though the consultation is not UK-wide, the Internal Market Bill’s “non-discrimination clause” means that Scotland’s Government will be powerless to bar GE goods produced in England from being sold north of the Border.

Gene editing (GE) is slightly different from genetic modification (GM). While the latter involves inserting new genes into a DNA strand, GE involves the cutting and removing of undesirable parts of genes.

Neither technology is allowed under EU law, which classifies both as genetic modification. However, with Brexit completed, the UK no longer needs to “slavishly follow” those “notoriously restrictive and politicised” restrictions, according to Environment Secretary George Eustice.

The Prime Minister has also expressed a desire to change the law. On his first day in office Boris Johnson promised to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules”.

Defra’s consultation document argues that “retained EU law … is not consistent with the position taken by most countries who have reviewed their respective regulations”.

It goes on: “Our position follows the science, which says that the safety of an organism is dependent on its characteristics and use rather than on how it was produced.

“This is the basis for our proposal, which is that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GM.”

However, Westminster’s own rules on consultation, published in 2018, state that the process should not be launched for “issues on which [ministers] already have a final view”.

The National: George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has strongly expressed his support for GE food

The National: George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has strongly expressed his support for GE food

The campaign group Beyond GM says the consultation comes across as “biased and lacking in thought and planning”.

Although Defra claims its position “follows the science”, Beyond GM director and co-founder Pat Thomas said: “It is notable that the consultation document itself – which makes sweeping statements about gene editing being the same as traditional breeding or what could happen in nature – contains no references, scientific or otherwise.”

In a letter dated January 26, Beyond GM’s directors, Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward, write to the UK Government to express their concerns that “the consultation is not being conducted in line with the Cabinet Office Consultation Principles”.

As well as listing a raft of ways in whcih they believe these consultation principles are being ignored, the letter accuses Defra of producing information which “actively misleads” both the public and media on the nature of the GE debate.

Thomas told The National that even those championing gene editing “do believe that some sort of regulation is necessary … the landscape of the discussion is ‘what should that regulation be?’”

She raised concerns that the UK Government’s consultation was a “hollow exercise” where ministers simply go through the motions necessary before they can change the law as they see fit.

In a damning article penned two weeks after the letter and with no response from Defra forthcoming, Thomas accused Westminster of being “wrapped up in ideology … and bewitched by the biotech industry”.

The campaigner says that the conversation around GM food requires “intelligent government, responsive government, government with vision, government that trusts its citizens. We double dare that government to show itself.”

The National: Boris Johnson's Government are accused of treating GE law changes as a 'quick win'

The National: Boris Johnson’s Government are accused of treating GE law changes as a ‘quick win’

When The National approached Defra to ask for a response to the concerns rasied, it said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, such as breeding crops that perform better, benefiting farmers and reducing impacts on the environment.

“Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity to make coherent policy decisions on gene editing based on current science and evidence.”

The UK Government department said that they “have been clear that we’d like to change” the law around GE technology, but said they are committed to “proportionate, science-based regulation”.

Thomas said Defra’s answer was “incredibly disappointing”.

She went on: “This kind of boilerplate response that refuses to engage with people who have made serious points and serious criticisms of the process is the sort of thing that foments the really unhelpful discussions around GM.

“These are the discussions that everyone wants to avoid, where everyone takes extreme sides and then they don’t move. This is exactly what Defra is encouraging right now.”

Thomas said that her campaign group is not necessarily against GE food, but they are concerned that the Government is treating a complex issue as something that can be rushed through.

She said: “The fact is that deregulation is not a straightforward exercise and it is not a simple discussion.

“Removing regulatory controls from genetically engineered plants and animals has consequences. It has consequences with our relationship with our largest trading partner in the EU, it has consequences for consumer trust in the food system and for citizen trust in the Government.”

The consultation will run to March 17, 2020. Information on how to submit your views can be found here.

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