Govt criticised for burying unfavourable consultation results

GMWatch is quoted in the article below. Our article on the government's response to the consultation on deregulating gene editing is here.

Agrifood Brief: Disin-gene-uous business?

By Gerardo Fortuna and Natasha Foote, 1 Oct 2021
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Between petrol panic, driver shortages, and warnings that Christmas could be in jeopardy, there has been no lack of bad press tied to the UK’s departure from the EU this week.

This is why the UK government badly needed a Brexit win – and fast.

Thankfully, this week offered a golden opportunity for the EU’s former member to announce it will officially be relaxing the regulation of gene-edited crops.

Cue the government’s much-lauded announcement on Tuesday (28 September) for new plans to “unlock the power of gene editing”.

The UK is currently aligned with the EU framework on gene-editing technologies, as organisms produced using these techniques are classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This decision to open its doors to gene-editing – or new genomic techniques (NGTs), as the EU has recently labelled them – is a true game-changer for the UK’s post-Brexit trade and food policies.

The changes will apply only to England, with the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland free to make their own decisions on the use of this technology and agricultural policy in general. This didn’t stop the government from celebrating a win for the UK as a whole.

“Leaving the EU allows the UK to set our own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies,” a statement from the country’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reads.

Likewise, the UK’s environment and food secretary, George Eustice, said that “outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.”

It doesn’t seem that there’s much new in this announcement that wasn’t already announced in January, as no precise timeline or information on the finer details have been offered.

While it’s still vague what exactly this means in practice, the statement commits to changing the rules relating to gene editing to “cut red tape and make research and development easier”. The aim is to allow gene-edited crops to be tested in the same way as naturally occurring new varieties.

The news doesn’t come as a surprise. The country has long earmarked relaxing regulation on gene editing as one of England’s flagship food aims, following its departure from the EU.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by critics of the technology, who have branded the move “undemocratic”. Why?

You might remember that the government opened up a consultation on this a few months back.

Some 6,500 people responded to the public consultation on the matter, giving their take on the sector’s future to help inform and guide DEFRA’s decisions around the regulations of agricultural genome editing.

The UK government committed to publishing a report on the consultation, along with the public responses, in June.

If you’re thinking, I don’t remember seeing the outcome of that, well, that’s because nothing was ever published. Until now.

The consultation results were published quietly after this week’s announcement, lost in the media storm caused by the announcement itself.

This sparked fierce criticism from campaigners, who pointed out that the government’s response showed most individuals (87%) and businesses (64%) felt that gene-edited organisms pose a greater risk than naturally bred organisms. It also showed that most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported regulating gene-edited products as GMOs.

“That the government ignores this weight of public opinion is a slap in the face for democracy,” UK campaign organisation GMWatch wrote in an online statement.

How the wider British public will receive the move and how this decision will impact the UK’s relationship with the EU, now on a different footing, remains to be seen.

But it is also true that the EU executive is currently reconsidering the framework on NGTs. Last week, it launched a consultation to collect feedback to guide its future legislative proposal on gene editing.

We are entering a delicate phase for biotechnology in Europe after three years of deadlock following the famous European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that stated NGTs should, in principle, fall under the GMO directive.

Echoes of the debate coming from across the Channel might also influence the discussions in Europe over this technology.

We must also consider echoes from another corner of the world, where the first-ever gene-edited food is due to go on the market…