Gene editing – caution please, says Unite
Is gene editing GM foods by another name? Could animal welfare and consumer choice be affected? uniteEXTRA investigates
Unite urged caution in May over moves by both the UK and the EU to relax rules governing the commercial use of gene editing in agriculture. Last week, the European Commission (EC) launched a review into EU laws governing the use of gene editing, which is currently banned, after declaring them ‘not fit for purpose’. Meanwhile, reports indicated that during the Queen’s Speech on May 11, the UK government would relax gene editing rules for agriculture. It wasn’t referred to directly – but the Environment Bill was – which contains details of what gene editing means to UK food production and animal welfare. According to the Lord’s Library account on the Queen’s Speech, ‘gene editing, (also known as genome editing) is the process by which parts of a genome are precisely replaced or removed from DNA. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a ruling that organisms produced through genome editing should be regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms (GMO).’ But, the report continues, ‘At the time of the ruling, Michael Gove, the then secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said gene editing had the potential to improve the productivity and sustainability of farming. He said the then government was concerned that the ECJ ruling created an “unjustified barrier” to the development of gene editing.’ In January, environment secretary George Eustice opened a consultation into gene editing by stating that it is ‘an important new technology to meet the challenges of the future’. In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on January 7, 2021, George Eustice announced the launch of a consultation on reforming the law to support the development of gene-editing technology in England. ‘Free to make coherent policy decisions’ In his speech Eustice said, “Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence and it starts today with a new consultation on proposed changes to English law that will enable gene editing to take place, so that we can achieve a simpler, scientifically credible regulatory framework to govern important new technologies.” The consultation included a proposal to amend the definition of GMO in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies would be excepted from this definition if they could have been developed using traditional breeding methods. The consultation closed on March 17 and it is expected the government will release the responses by mid-June. Welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), concerns over the gene editing plan have been expressed by Unite – and a number of leading animal and environmental organisations including the RSPCA and the Soil Association. The NFU, calling itself ‘The voice of British farming’ said, “The NFU sees benefits for the environment, consumers, animal welfare and farmers in the use of genetic technology in agriculture, believing it should be effectively regulated. “Legislation must be proportionate, fit-for-purpose, based on robust science and enable fair access and choice. Access to both internal and EU markets must not be compromised by a new legislative framework. “The NFU urges government to take greater responsibility for showing independent leadership, not only in policy but also in dialogue with consumers and supply chains to deliver understanding and confidence in both the technologies and their regulation.” But the RSPCA fears that, “The outcome could be that genome edited (GE) farm animals would be excluded from the definition of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Consequently, products made from GE animals would not be labelled as such, resulting in a huge impact on consumers.
“These companies have proved time and again that their quest for market dominance obliterates labour or environmental rights regardless of where they operate. There may well be some legitimate benefits to gene editing in agriculture. However, our members across the food industry, from farming to manufacturing, are deeply concerned about its potential impact on the environment and consumer health, as well as on jobs and the wider food supply chain.”
Bev Clarkson, Unite national officeer
‘Huge step backwards’
“We believe that relaxing regulations on GE livestock would be a huge step backwards for animal welfare and jeopardise ethical consumer choices.” It also added that, “Whilst the move has been positioned by some as a way to meet the demand for animal products, benefit the farming industry, provide more sustainable products and even improve animal health and welfare, we believe that the welfare risks to both the animals used to create GE lines, and the resulting animals, are just too great. “For animals, this liberation of innovation comes at a price. For the public, it could cost us the ability to make a choice about the food we eat.” Meanwhile the message from the well-respected organic farming campaign group, the Soil Association is clear. It says, “Tell the UK government that de-regulating gene editing is not OK!” The campaign group says, “Our main concern is that gene editing will be a sticking plaster for industrial farming systems and will target symptoms not root causes.
“The claims made around these GM techniques remain highly speculative and divert attention from what we really need. We want an immediate focus on vital investment and farmer-driven action and research, which could be yielding results right now.”
Unite is also concerned about what this really means for UK agriculture and food production – and how the covert nature of how these measures will be introduced.
“Similar promises about pesticide reduction and plants being adapted for climate change were made by companies pushing the first generation of genetically modified (GM) crops,” Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer told uniteEXTRA. “Those promises failed to materialise then and are now being made in relation to gene editing by many of the same agri-tech multinationals. ‘Market dominance obliterates labour rights’ “These companies have proved time and again that their quest for market dominance obliterates labour or environmental rights regardless of where they operate,” she added. “There may well be some legitimate benefits to gene editing in agriculture. However, our members across the food industry, from farming to manufacturing, are deeply concerned about its potential impact on the environment and consumer health, as well as on jobs and the wider food supply chain. “Both the UK and EU must ensure the legitimate worries surrounding gene editing are acted upon and that the ‘precautionary principle’ is adhered to in relation to introducing genetically modified produce into the food chain and wider environment,” Clarkson continued. “Despite both the UK and the EU seemingly heading in the same direction on gene editing, we also have concerns that changes to regulatory regimes could lead to trading barriers that hurt the British food industry and ultimately impact our members’ jobs. “We call on the UK government to deliver a cast iron guarantee that this will not happen.”
By Ryan Fletcher