Agroecology, not a high-tech free-for-all, is the way forward for agriculture, writes Louise Payton, policy officer at the Soil Association
We are extremely disappointed that the Government is pushing ahead with proposals to allow unregulated genetic modification of plants, including food crops, in England – and with hopes to do the same for animals.
In light of the climate and nature crisis and ongoing global instability, we urgently need a different land use and food production model. One which takes an agroecological approach that works with nature. The right question to ask right now is what research and development do we need to prioritise for this. The government hasn’t asked this. It hasn’t even responded to the National Food Strategy or announced a much-needed Food Bill, which should be top priority.
Instead, it has jumped on a high tech sounding PR stunt, and one which isn’t even popular. This decision to have a high-tech free for all ignores the 85% majority view that is firmly against the total removal of safety regulations and transparency, expressed in the government’s consultation last year. I have included the findings of that consultation at the bottom of this blog.
"Precision breeding" and "gene editing" have become shiny and attractive sounding terms used to rebrand newer forms of genetic modification. They cover a wide range of techniques which directly manipulate DNA to make significant changes to animals and plants.
The announced Genetic Technology or "Precision Breeding" Bill seeks to extend controversial legislative changes around field trials of plants, to all commercial uses, with future sights set on animals. It will presumably take the same scientifically arbitrary red line, which still isn’t completely clear, but seems to be roughly that as long as no genes from other species are used, no higher safety checks, of any kind, are needed. Assertions that this is "natural" have lacked any publicly available scientific appraisal.
Claims that this removal of safety checks will lead to long term public benefits such as "climate-ready crops" are also not backed up with government evidence. What seems more likely, and as history has proven to us, we'll see a major rise in controlling crop patents and unwelcome, profitable traits such as herbicide-resistant plants. No publicly available assessment has been provided of these risks, and therefore no action has been taken to deal with them.
This decision also denies the right of people and farmers to choose to eat and grow non GM. Organic legal standards for example, prohibit GM. Many of our major trading partners, such as the EU, still require supply chain transparency for these GM techniques. Again, the government has quietly coughed these issues aside. Again, with no publicly available assessment or action.
Even if these risks had been assessed, and somehow dealt with, it would have still been a bizarre addition to today’s announcements. When it comes to transforming agriculture and helping families put healthy, sustainable foods on their plates, manipulating genes is a long way down the list of urgent priorities. It seems to confirm accusations that the government is hastily pursuing a rash "bonfire of regulations" post Brexit in order to attempt to show the benefits of leaving the EU.
One small consolation today is we did hear that “no changes will be made to the regulation of animals until animal welfare is safeguarded”. This sounds rather predetermined, however. There are considerable risks, highlighted in a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report, including the way in which these technologies can enable low welfare systems to continue. The Government must pay close attention now to the new public dialogue, launched yesterday, to explore further views on genome editing in farmed animals.
Overall, this decision is likely to divert attention from the vital research really needed, and further lock us into intensification – taking us away from a sustainable food and farming system.
We need government to urgently ask the right questions and invest in solutions that deal with the root cause of problems in food and agriculture. Take disease and pests – the long-term solution must be to deal with the cause of these in the first place; the lack of crop diversity, poor soil health and the decline in beneficial insects. In farm animals, the priority must be a shift away from intensive systems reliant on feed, to ‘less but better’ agroecological livestock systems with locally adapted breeds.
That is why we are calling on the government to take up the recommendations in the National Food Strategy and reverse the lack of investment in agroecological, nature-friendly methods and farmer-led innovation, which currently sits at less than 1% of research and development spending.
The government consultation on gene editing results
Of the responses counted (around 3000), 85% still indicated no support for deregulation. The Defra summary of statistics did not dare to mention this total; the organisation Beyond GM had to calculate it!
The government did at least admit that of those counted:
* 88% of individuals did not indicate support for deregulation
* 64% of businesses did not indicate support for deregulation
* Only 55% of public sector bodies did
* Only 58% of academic institutions did
Worse still, nearly half (3083) of the total responses were not counted on the basis that these came from supporters of campaigns – including ours.
These results came through despite the clear bias in the nature of the questions and background information, to the extent it appears the consultation didn’t even meet the government’s own procedural guidelines.
This article was first published by the Soil Association. It is reproduced on GMWatch with permission.