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New GMOs will evade scrutiny as controversial bill passes; fight to defend the food chain continues

The UK Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which exempts some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from vital regulatory safeguards, is about to become law. That’s bad news for anyone who cares about food sovereignty but there could be much worse to come, writes Liz O'Neill of GM Freeze in a guest blog for Sustain.

Parliament, London. Copyright: ZoneCreative | shutterstock

Parliament, London. Copyright: ZoneCreative | shutterstock

The Genetic Technology Bill invents a new class of GMO on the basis that genetic changes that have been made in a laboratory “could have resulted from traditional processes”. Genetically manipulated crop plants, livestock, trees, pets and even wild animals that meet this hypothetical benchmark will be designated as “precision bred organisms” (PBOs) and will not require individual risk assessments before release. PBOs will also escape the detailed traceability and labelling rules that allow all of us to choose whether or not we want to grow, sell, buy or eat GMOs.

Opposition MPs attempted to remove animals from the scope of the bill; to make good the Government’s claims about what new GM techniques can achieve by limiting “PBO” status to genetic changes that provide a public benefit; and to boost safety checks in various ways. However, all House of Commons amendments were defeated.

In the House of Lords, debates covered the importance of labelling; the need to protect organic and other non-GM farmers from contamination; and the potential for new GM techniques to support poor husbandry by creating abuse-tolerant animals. Lord Robert Winston is a leading expert on genetics and embryology and his explanation of his deep and detailed concerns about the content of the bill noticeably unsettled Defra Minister Lord Benyon but the Government’s resolve remained intact. A few technical amendments were accepted including one that was supported by several Sustain members, but the bill is set to receive Royal Assent (and become an Act of Parliament) with its ability to impose unchecked, and unlabelled, GMOs on the whole UK food chain undiminished. 

The legal changes that the bill establishes are of huge concern to the movement for a responsible, fair and sustainable food system, but the way in which they will be enacted has also generated widespread criticism, including from the House of Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and Select Committee on the Constitution. Both committees criticized the 28 different parts of the bill that give Ministers the power to decide key details later. Government Ministers plan to address these vital technical points, which cover issues as fundamental as what kind of information will be required to prove that a particular GMO qualifies as “precision bred”, through the creation of statutory instruments which are not subjected to proper scrutiny or parliamentary debate. Civil society still has a role to play and the Sustain members that have followed every twist and turn of the Genetic Technology Bill (including GM Freeze and Beyond GM) will continue to make the case for robust regulation, but there is also more to come. Potentially much more.

The Government has described the Genetic Technology Bill as the beginning of a “stepwise” process of changing the law around genetic engineering. Whether or not you agree that Gene Editing is GM with Better PR it is vital to prepare for the next stage in what seems to be a plan to completely dismantle our GMO safeguards. If that’s not the future you want for our food, our farms or the natural environment, please see GM Freeze for more information.



Published Monday 6 March 2023

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Orla is Head of Public Affairs for Sustain and also leads the communications for Sustain’s work on Good Food Trade. She is working hard to promote the opportunities and threats for food, farming and fishing as we exit the EU so we all have decent food to eat at the end of the process.

Orla Delargy
Head of Public Affairs

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