Beyond GM responds
The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has published a report on the draft Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 which will make it easier to plant experimental GMO crops in England.
The report comes after letters sent by civil society groups Beyond GM, GM Freeze and the Organic Farmers & Growers which raised several key criticisms of the proposed change in law.
After consideration the SLSC has formally raised multiple concerns in relation to this proposed legislative change and has issued a press release detailing these.
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In response to the report and press release, Beyond GM Director Pat Thomas said:
“It’s encouraging that the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) has seen through the smoke and mirrors of this proposed amendment. The statutory instrument, which will alter the definition of a GMO in the UK’s Environmental Protection Act, is incoherent and full of loopholes. It creates an entirely hypothetical subset of GMOs “that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding” but fails to provide any guidance on how these mythical GMOs are to be assessed.
“The amendment neither clarifies nor advances the cause of research nor does it provide any reassurance for farmers who don’t want to see experimental GMO crops planted next to their non-GMO fields. It also does not take into account the view of the thousands of citizens who responded to last year’s public consultation – 85% of whom said they wished to see gene-edited organisms continue to be regulated as GMOs.
“We urge the House of Lords and the House of Commons to reject this unclear statutory instrument and we urge Defra to stop playing ideological games with our food supply and commit itself to bringing a much broader group of stakeholders – representing a wide body of views – to the table in order to give more serious and sensible consideration to how the UK can best approach the complex issue of genetic technologies in agriculture.”
Thomas also noted that the way the amendment is written does not specify field trials or research and does not restrict planting to agricultural crops. This opens the door for uncontrolled plantings of any qualifying fruits, grains, vegetables, trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers and, alongside field trials, for demonstration fields, educational field labs or multiplication e.g., to increase experimental seed stocks – all without the requirement of environmental impact assessment or monitoring.
The concerns which the SLSC has raised and has asked the Lords to consider include:
* A lack of detail in the Explanatory Memorandum about plans for wider reform of the rules for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Defra states that the changes are being made as the first step of a wider reform programme which seeks to maximise the potential of genetic technologies and gene editing. However, the Committee noted that there were no details of the Government’s wider reform plan in the explanatory material provided.
* A lack of clarity regarding the criteria that will be used to assess whether a plant is a qualifying higher plant. The draft Regulations include a definition of the “qualifying higher plants” which would be subject to the new rules, but they do not set out any scientific or regulatory criteria to assess whether a genetic modification or change in a plant could have occurred naturally or could have been produced through traditional breeding methods. Concerns over the use of terms such as “occurred naturally” were raised during a public consultation and in submissions the Committee received, showing a high level of uncertainty about how the new category of “qualifying higher plant” would be assessed and by whom. Defra told the Committee that the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) were in the process of developing guidance for developers and researchers to assist in assessing whether genetic modifications were of a type that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding techniques. The Committee’s report expresses regret that the guidance is yet to be published despite Defra being aware of the concerns raised at consultation stage. The report urges the Department to ensure that the guidance is published in good time before the new rules come into effect and that this guidance is communicated effectively, to provide clarity to researchers and those who have concerns about the new policy. In addition, the report suggests the House should ask the Minister why the guidance was not made available to Parliament so it could be considered alongside the draft Regulations.
* A lack of safeguards or containment measures. Under the proposals, while there is a requirement to notify the Secretary of State before any qualifying higher plants are released into the environment, there are no provisions for the notification to include information as to the location or scale of the release. There is also no requirement for the notification to include details about any containment measures that have been taken to prevent any potential adverse effects on commercial crops in the area that might occur once GMOs are released into the environment. This is an area of particular concern to organic farmers. Defra told the Committee that on the basis of the scientific advice provided by ACRE, it did not believe that field trials involving qualifying higher plants would lead to any more risk of environmental or economic damage than traditionally bred plants, and that safeguards or containment measures were the responsibility of whoever was developing or releasing the GMO into the environment. The Committee concludes that given the public interest in the new rules and the fact they rely on self-declaration to be effective, Defra should consider conducting and publishing an evaluation of the practical application of the new rules and of any environmental or economic damage, to inform the wider reforms that the Government intend to take forward in this area.
* Given that the new rules only apply to England the Committee was concerned how this may affect collaboration between researchers in different parts of the UK. The Committee remained unconvinced by Defra’s assertion that the regulatory difference with both Wales and Scotland (neither of which will be introducing these changes) will not cause any issues for researchers or developers.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, Chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said: “This instrument proposes a significant change in policy and regulation which might have been more suitably dealt with by primary legislation to allow thorough and robust scrutiny by Parliament rather than under secondary legislation – an issue we explored in detail in our report – Government by Diktat: A call to return power to Parliament."
The House of Lords has an important function in reviewing, amending and even stopping legislation and in our view the SLSC has raised a number of significant concerns which should prompt the Lords (as well as the House of Commons) to reject what is clearly an inadequate and poorly conceived change in law.
The statutory instrument comes out of a flawed process of public consultation. The analysis by our A Bigger Conversation initiative Filling in the Blanks – What Defra Didn’t Say details the multiple stakeholders, including those who are supportive of GM – such as the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), the Microbiology Society, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Biology, the FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), Wildlife and Countryside Link and others – that criticised Defra for its insistence on GMOs “that could have occurred naturally”.
Defra’s Advisory Committee on Releases in the Environment (ACRE), in its advice to Defra, stated that it will remain “necessary for regulators to assess whether or not genetic changes introduced by these technologies could have arisen naturally and/or through traditional breeding”. Yet no such assessment is required by the Instrument.
* The full SLSC report is here
* You can read civil society submissions to the SLSC here
* The SLSC press release is here
The above article was first published by Beyond GM. It is reproduced on GMWatch with the kind permission of Beyond GM.