The term “regulation” may chime with “boring” and “bureaucracy” but in combination with “genetic technologies” the announcement of the consultation on January, 7th certainly jolted me wide awake. The government wants to do away with at least some of the regulations that, under EU law, constrained the use of gene editing (GE) techniques. And it says so on the website: “Defra’s view is that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.”
In plain English: the government is happy for food to be produced by using gene editing techniques and doesn’t see the need to label them as such, either.
That has me worried. Why? Because of the science. In 2018, after a two-year review of science data, the European Court of Justice found that scientifically and legally, gene editing is genetic engineering and gene edited crops and animals are GMOs. Since then, there have been a host of studies showing that techniques such as CRISPR Cas9 are not as precise a tool as initially thought but can have numerous off-target effects – they cut and alter DNA in other, unintended ways and there is no knowing what consequences that may have.
With that in mind I turned to https://beyond-gm.org/how-to-respond-to-the-uk-consultation/, an excellent guide, written jointly by different NGOs. I am neither a geneticist nor a molecular biologist, reading the simple, clear explanations is helping me to formulate my answers for both parts of the consultation. The deadline is March 17th, I will get it done by then and I can only encourage everyone to engage with this consultation. We have to make our voices heard!
Still, working my way through the questions I got grumpier by the minute because of the things I was not being asked. That in itself throws up a lot of questions:
The consultation was launched just days after the end of the Brexit transition period and in the middle of a pandemic. With the news dominated by rising infection numbers and a steadily increasing death toll a government consultation on GE and regulation isn’t exactly clickbait. Is it possible that the government doesn’t want a lot of people to respond to this?
The tone of the questions
From the outset the government makes its views known: the end product is what matters. The process – breeding or gene editing – does not matter. You (like me) prefer the slow, tried and tested method of conventional breeding? You want to stick with the ‘precautionary principle’ that assumes that just because you can’t prove something is harmful it doesn’t mean it’s safe? With the gene technologies consultation the government sets the terms for the debate and there is no room to what I consider to be the real issues:
A quick technical fix: Why the government says we need gene editing.
Environment secretary George Eustice spelt it out at this year’s Oxford farming conference: gene editing could ‘unlock benefits for substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food’. And this is how Britain will reach its ‘climate goals’.
Long term solutions – or what we really should be discussing.
I’ve spent the last four years researching how organic and regenerative farmers work to improve the soil. I’ve seen the abundance of crops that grow in good soil – soil full of earthworms, soil organisms and mycorrhizal fungi. I’ve seen how much water such soil can hold, how much rain can infiltrate, how the tilth or structure of this soil prevents flooding and how the moisture it stores fortifies plants in times of drought. The crops these farmers harvest are nutrient dense and healthy. And the farms are profitable because the farmers need very little or no fertilizer at all, and almost never use pesticides. They farm with nature, they nurture the ecosystem on their farm. They know that it’s agrichemicals that disrupts and destroys it.
And on most of these farms you will find animals – cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs… grazing, never in confinement but being part of the ecosystem cycle. The higher the biodiversity of plants, of animals and in the soil, the better things work. This is not yesteryear farming, it’s not shunning science – on the contrary: this is the field application of cutting-edge soil science!
And none of these farmers is yearning for gene edited plants or animals. They don’t need them because things work just fine. And if there is a way to sequester carbon in the soil, it’s this type of regenerative and organic agriculture.
So, who needs gene edited crops…
Agrichemical companies do. It’s their business model. Modify seeds in a lab, preferably to make crops herbicide resistant, slap a patent on and leave the rest to the sales team and the PR department, peddling the lie of industrial agriculture feeding the world.
…. and gene edited animals?
Gene edited animals are being proposed as a way of making animals raised on factory farms healthier. But the diseases these animals are vulnerable to are man-made, caused by the crowded and poorly managed systems they are kept in. Why engineer our animals to fit into a broken system when we can – and should – change the system!
What needs doing….
Of course, consumers have to do their bit too: avoid food waste, eat meat and dairy products from grassfed cattle – which, by definition, means eating less of both – and realise that there is no such thing as cheap food. High quality produce has a price. If we are not paying it to farmers, we’ll pay it in terms of ill health and environmental degradation.
Please engage with the government consultation
Answer the questions and send them off to meet the March 17th deadline. Not to take part would make it all too easy for the government to argue that the public doesn’t care about GE regulation and labelling. But once the consultation is done, it’s time to change the conversation and let the government know that agroecology and regenerative farmers can feed us all, increase biodiversity and combat the climate crisis. That’s the change we really need.
Marianne Landzettel is an ag journalist and author of: Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Good Food. Profitable Farms. Greener Planet. @M_Landzettel