Overhead view of a tractor in a field.

Supermarkets are urged to reject unlabelled gene-edited foods

… while Defra consults public on regulation of genetic technologies.
11 February 2021 , Katie Coyne

UK supermarkets are being urged to refuse to stock goods produced from unregulated and unlabelled gene-edited crops and animals.

Following a two-year review of scientific evidence, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that gene-edited crops and animals are the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, Defra has described the ruling as “flawed” and is running a public consultation on proposals to allow certain gene-edited crops and animals to be exempt from GMO regulations in England. This would mean products containing them would not have to be labelled or subject to monitoring for unexpected, wider effects on human health and the environment.

More than fifty groups and individuals have written a joint letter to supermarket chefs, urging them to rebuff all unlabelled GM foods.

The letter urges UK supermarkets “to listen to your customers… be respectful of nature and science, to be mindful of the future and to demonstrate leadership by joining us in opposing the deregulation of genome-edited crops and livestock in England and the rest of the UK”.

Supporters include: the Soil Association; Unchecked UK; Gaia Foundation; Prof Tim Lang, City University; Prof Erik Millstone, Sussex University; and the two groups that launched the letter, Beyond GM and Slow Food in the UK.

Devolved governments that do not want to see a change in the regulations, as Wales and Scotland have indicated, will be prevented from stopping gene-edited products being sold in their jurisdictions by the Internal Market Act as it stands. Concerns have also been raised that deviating from EU regulations will make trade for Northern Ireland more difficult.

The type of gene-edited crops and animals that Defra proposes would be exempted from the current regulations are gene-edited foods derived from GMOs that could have been produced by traditional breeding methods. But Beyond GM director Pat Thomas takes issue with the idea that any of the organisms could have been produced in nature.

She said: “The idea that these organisms – let's say you're talking about a plant that is resistant to an insecticide herbicide like glyphosate – those plants don't occur in nature. So the idea that many of these plants with the traits that Defra is aspiring to could occur naturally is entirely theoretical and not proven in any science. The second thing to say is that it's not just us saying it, it’s the European Court of Justice.”

Thomas also argued that gene-editing is being portrayed by Defra as a “simple tweak” when the process usually involves “really quite deep interventions at the genetic level” particularly when involving complex traits like greater yield or pesticide resistance and that there is “potential for huge off-target effects”.

Beyond GM is also concerned that the consultation is not just talking about plants but also mentions animals. The sorts of work being carried out in gene-editing in animals that Thomas points to includes breeding tailless pigs, as pigs crowded together bite each other’s tails, and dairy herds without horns so more can be fitted into one space.

She said: “This does raise several issues about how the government defines sustainability and whether genetic engineering entrenches the industrial system or whether it really does have sustainability benefits. And so far, there haven't been any studies to show that it does.

“It needs to be regulated because what we don't know about genetic engineering far outweighs what we do, because there is potential for adverse effects on the health and environment: and regulation acts as a gatekeeper for that.

“Why does it need to be labelled? Because the majority, up to two thirds, of the UK population do not want genetically engineered foods and deregulation would remove the requirement to label these gene-edited products.

“We are saying that consumers should be able to exercise their choice and their preference of not consuming genetically engineered foods – however they have been genetically engineered.”

Defra released the following statement: “Gene editing has the potential to help us produce abundant, healthy food. It will allow us to breed crops that perform better, reduce costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and help us adapt to the challenges of climate change.

“Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence.”

A spokesperson for Llywodraeth Cymru said: “The policy of the Welsh Government is to maintain our precautionary approach to genetic modification and this includes gene editing techniques.

“The provisions of the Internal Market Act, if unchallenged, would prevent Welsh Government from restricting the sales of gene-edited products in Wales. This is one of a litany of examples of how the Act undermines devolution and reinforces our determination to challenge it through the courts.”

Ben Macpherson, Scotland’s minister for rural affairs and the natural environment, said: “Scotland’s policy on the cultivation of GM crops has not changed – we will be maintaining Scotland’s GM-free crop status, in line with our commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards, and have made our views known to UK ministers.

“The UK Government’s consultation highlights the fundamental damage that has been done to devolution and Scotland’s interests by the Internal Market Act. The Internal Market Act has been imposed on Scotland in contravention of established constitutional conventions and despite an express refusal of consent by the Scottish Parliament.

“While any definition change outlined in the UK Government consultation would apply to products made in England, the Internal Market Act would force Scotland to accept the marketing, sale and circulation of products here even though they fail to meet the standards set out in Scottish regulations. This would include labelling decisions, so Scottish consumers could be left in the dark about the content of the product they are buying.”

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