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Gove should not use gene editing as a ‘silver bullet’

Sustain member the Soil Association responds to Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s suggestion that British scientists and farmers could “lead the way” on gene editing after the UK leaves the EU.

Field of rapeseed. Photo credit: Pixabay

Field of rapeseed. Photo credit: Pixabay

Speaking at a Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) conference last week, Michael Gove MP said that outside the EU, the UK could use gene editing technology to produce higher-yield crops that are resistant to diseases and resilient to climate change:

“Even if there are individual lobby groups that express their legitimate concerns we will ensure those scientific tools are there for those who can improve productivity in a genuinely sustainable way. Gene editing allows us to give mother nature a helping hand, to accelerate the process of evolution in a way which can significantly increase yield and also reduce our reliance on chemicals and other input. There is a potential there for Britain and our scientists and our farmers to lead the way.”

Soil Association response

Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy at the Soil Association is reluctant for the UK to embrace gene editing without proper regulation:

“Scientific research has long shown that these new gene-editing technologies give rise to similar uncertainties and risks as GM always has, and we would urge the government to ensure the UK stays aligned with the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that classed gene editing as a form of GM. This ruling was backed by strong scientific evidence, including the study published by leading journal Nature that shows the technique ‘causes many profound mutations and DNA damage’.

“Government should treat gene editing with great caution and, as promised, uphold the precautionary principle after Brexit. It isn’t a silver bullet and risks distracting us from the innovation needed to transition to genuinely sustainable, agroecological farming that can meet our 21st century challenges of feeding the population healthily and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

“Despite decades of claims that traditional GM plant breeding is completely safe, that it would feed the world, reduce pesticide use and deliver all sorts of other benefits, the evidence has often shown GM crops to have been a disaster.

“We have always been clear that these new plant breeding techniques are GMOs and therefore are banned in organic farming and food. The outcome of gene-editing is to manipulate and alter the genome in a laboratory to make a new organism. This is the very definition of genetic engineering, and gene-editing risks introducing similar uncertainties and unintended consequences as genetic modification of DNA.

“The Soil Association will continue to encourage the cultivation of open pollinated seeds, which can help farmers adapt to a changing climate by breeding drought and pest tolerant plants. Breeding crops in this way has proven to be lower-cost, faster and more effective than GM, particularly when informed by new technologies like Marker Assisted Selection, based on our new knowledge of the genome.”

6 Dec 2018
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