Gene editing: Genetic modification with better PR

Liz O’Neill, Director of GM Freeze, explains how gene editing is simply the newest iteration of genetic modification. As George Eustice ditches public protections, ignoring his own consultation, she explains how Greens can get involved.

Farm equipment in use
Farm equipment in use
Liz O'Neill

Environment Secretary George Eustice is a fan of all things genetically modified (GM). So much of a fan, in fact, that he has decided to ignore the results of his own public consultation – which returned a firm ‘no’ on proposals to slash the GM regulation safety net – and push on with plans for a high-tech free-for-all that puts our food, our farms and the natural environment in danger. 

Green Party policy states that a Green Government will “Establish and enforce robust regulation of GMOs (including gene-edited organisms) in food and agriculture to protect people, animals and the environment”, and that such regulation should include clear labelling, protection against GM contamination and measures to prevent any genetically modified organism (GMO) entering the food chain – or a farmer’s field – until it is “independently proven, on a case by case basis to be safe and produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably”.

Like most aspects of food and farming law, UK regulation of GMOs was previously handled in Brussels and is now subject to theoretically identical ‘retained EU law’. That regulation is far from perfect, but it does ensure that GMOs can’t be released without case-by-case risk assessments; traceability and post-release monitoring; as well as labelling that allows us to choose what we buy and eat. The rules apply across a wide range of genetic engineering techniques and here’s where the terminology starts to really matter. 

The term genetically modified is legally defined jargon for manipulating the DNA of a living organism in the lab. In contrast, gene (or genome) editing has no legal meaning but is being widely used to give newer GM techniques a re-branding facelift. 

Some new GM techniques work a little differently from those that first appeared in the food chain 20+ years ago, but the bottom line is that disrupting DNA can – and does – go wrong. All GM techniques can cause off-target errors (changing a different part of the genome than was intended); on-target errors (hitting the right spot but making the wrong changes); unexpected effects of intended genetic changes (making the planned molecular changes but finding out that they have a different result because many genes do more than one thing); and unintended consequences in the field (because it can be very hard to predict how an ecosystem will adapt to the arrival of a novel organism). That’s why no GMO should ever be released without a rigorous independent risk assessment and a level of traceability that will allow recall if something goes wrong down the line.

The GM crops that are currently cultivated around the world are obviously not Green. Most are weedkiller-friendly crops, designed to withstand repeated spraying with chemical cocktails that will kill every other plant in sight. Others have been engineered to poison insects. Despite their great PR, the new generation of GM techniques is already being used in similar ways. The first two commercial ‘gene-edited’ GM crops are a weedkiller-linked oilseed rape and a soya bean that produces oil for the fast-food industry. The GM model supports industrial farming because GM thinking is rooted in monocultures (biodiversity deserts that make a quick profit at the expense of the soil, wildlife and the ecosystem). You can’t fix the food system one trait at a time, but what huge agrichemical corporations that already own most of the new GM patents can do is make a lot of money. 

George Eustice’s plan to dismantle GM safeguards may please the agritech corporations, but it certainly isn’t popular with farmers, food producers or citizens. In January, the Secretary of State launched his public consultation on plans to remove public protections from GMOs in the food chain. The summary report on the consultation was released several hours after the announcement that the plans will be going ahead, and the Minister’s ‘unorthodox’ timing is easy to understand when you look at the numbers. A staggering 88 per cent of individuals and 64 per cent of businesses that participated in the consultation said they oppose plans to remove GM safeguards from new GM techniques.

September’s announcement – and many of the questions in the Defra consultation – focused on GMOs that ‘could have been produced through traditional breeding’. The consultation didn’t explain how such a hypothetical status could be determined and, in fact, asked respondents to suggest what criteria should be used. The 6,440 who submitted a response generally said that no such criteria exist and even the Roslin Institute (home of Dolly the cloned sheep and keen advocates of GM deregulation) described the idea of such a definition as ‘exceptionally challenging’.

Rather than reconsidering, Eustice is pushing ahead, and his first step will be for all GM field trials to go ahead without safety checks or formal consent. This means that GM developers will be able to plant highly experimental crops in open fields without any independent scrutiny or monitoring. Details are still sketchy but it’s possible that this will allow much larger field trials to ahead without containment measures. If that happens, poor practice on unregulated experimental plots could allow untested GMOs into the food chain.  

This initial change will only apply in England as agriculture is a devolved matter. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have a much more sceptical approach to GM than their Westminster counterparts but there may be little they can do to prevent unregulated GMOs from entering their territory, as GM pollen and seed are as likely to respect national boundaries as they are to abide by the off-side rule.

Even within Westminster, it will be very difficult to check the details as Eustice has said that he will use a statutory instrument (SI) to change the rules on GM field trials. SIs are a very ‘quiet’ way to change the law as they sidestep the need for parliamentary debate. Our Greens in Parliament are on the case and will be intervening where they can, but the time has come for us all to get involved.

At an Autumn Conference fringe event, I asked Green Party members to remember that gene editing is GM with better PR and to write to their MP so that we can start building up a community of parliamentarians who understand the risks and are willing to challenge Government moves towards a GM free-for-all. 

I’m already booked to speak to members of one local party and would be pleased to hear from others who would like to know more, but there is also a key role for our elected councillors to play. In the early 2000s, councils across England and Wales declared their GMO-free status, demonstrating opposition and helping put the brakes on the first generation of GMOs. GM Freeze is keen to work with Green Councillors to create new model motions and supports those who want to take a stand where they live so please sign up for news or get in touch to discuss how you can help.