Government and scientists clash over gene editing

Gene editing is proving divisive as Westminster wants to relax rules around food security
09 June 2022 , By Katie Coyne

A row over gene editing is growing as the government wants to loosen rules to boost food security while opponents argue that it is off target.

Now that the UK has left the EU, the government wants to cut the “red tape” around research into gene editing technology with its Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

It argued that gene editing offered benefits such as creating safer foods by removing allergens, developing crops with improved disease and pest resistance, as well boosting yields, nutrition and climate change resilience. Environment Minister, George Eustice said food containing gene edited crops could be in shops as early as next year.

But there is concern among scientists, food and environmental groups that have come together under the umbrella organisation GM Freeze that gene editing does not address the cause of food security problems, and also has the potential to cause long term harm.

They point to research – including the National Food Strategy - showing that food security is best achieved by agroecological farming and switching to healthy and more sustainable diets “is the most evidence-based solution” for climate, nature and health.

Consumer research carried out by Defra has found that consumers do not want gene edited foods, and opponents to the technology are also concerned that while there is a move towards greater transparency in labelling – allergens, and calorific values – there would be no requirement to label gene edited foods.

New Scientist magazine has also waded into the debate, conducting a poll among the major UK supermarkets. It found that none were willing to stock gene edited products.

“Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests.”

Jo Lewis, Policy Director at the Soil Association, part of the GM Freeze group, said prioritising gene editing deregulation over changes called for in the National Food Strategy “smacks of a government casting about for silver bullets”.

She added: “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.

“Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place. History has proven that GM only benefits a minority of big businesses with a major rise in controlling crop patents and unwelcome, profitable traits such as herbicide-resistant weeds.”

However, Vice President of the National Farmers Union, David Exwood said: “It’s very encouraging to see this new Bill which has the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and help deliver significant progress to UK food production and to the environment, and be vital in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.

“New precision breeding tools could help in a number of ways, from addressing pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals and improving animal health and welfare, to increasing farmers’ resilience in the event of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought.

“Crucially, precision breeding technologies will also help in the development of foods with direct benefits to the public such as better quality, increased nutritional value and products with a longer shelf life.”

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

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