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Discourse around GM foods ‘has been complicated by politics’

Regulations for genetically modified and gene-edited foods face shake-up in Defra review.
17 March 2021 , Katie Coyne

Regulating gene-edited (GE) and genetically modified (GM) foods could be made ‘more scientific’ and ‘less political’.

This is according to Dr Louise Ball, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), about its consultation into views on GM and GE, speaking at the FSA’s international food regulatory analysis conference.

Ball was asked by an attendee whether the safety of GM products could be talked about in a more science-driven way.

She answered: “A decision about whether you authorise it [GM], is based on a scientific assessment of the risk. But that's all been complicated, I think, by politics.

“So decision-making actually isn't now based on that sort of scientific basis, as I think the question suggests it should be. And I think arguably it's also affected the assessment. So I think that's partly why we've put a question in our consultation about wider GM reform.

“So could we do… the system now better. Could we make it better, make it more scientific, because that is the underpinning principle behind it? Or do we need to sort of rethink that... But I think generally most people think we could make a better stab at making it more scientific as it stands.”

There is growing concern among environmental and health charities, as well as food policy experts, about potential negative repercussions of consuming gene-edited foods – particularly if their impact cannot be tracked because they are allowed to be put into foods without being labelled.

Charities Beyond GM and Slow Food in the UK have launched a campaign to lobby UK supermarkets to not stock unlabelled and untested gene edited foods.

Ball clarified that rules around the insertion of genes, as part of gene editing, would be captured under GM legislation, and not under proposed new changes. She said: “That's not the sort of exclusion that we're talking about, we're really talking about … deletions and small changes. But it is more complicated than that.”

However, Ball also did say earlier in her presentation that the Defra consultation is proposing to amend the definition of ‘genetically modified organism’ (GMO), and not just GE foods.

She said: “We've got a proposal now that's set out in this consultation, which is to amend the definition of a GMO so that it doesn't apply to organisms that could have been produced by traditional methods.

“So that doesn't just cover genome-edited organisms. That could be any other organism produced by genetic technology that could have been produced through traditional methods.

“The other thing to highlight is that the change, if it does happen, will be in England only. So it'll be the English definition of a GMO that will be changed.”

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