UK government's response to public consultation on gene editing is scientifically indefensible and a slap in the face for democracy
The UK government has released its response to the public consultation on its plans to deregulate gene editing – but only AFTER all the morning news broadcasts hyping the potential of the technology.
Could this have anything to do with the fact that the government's response reveals that out of 6,440 submissions to the consultation, most individuals (87%) and businesses (64%) felt that gene-edited organisms pose a greater risk than naturally bred organisms? And that most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported continuing to regulate the products of gene editing as GMOs?
That the government ignores this weight of public opinion and intends to proceed with its deregulation agenda is a slap in the face for democracy.
The government prefers to emphasise that the majority of academic institutions (63%) and public sector bodies (82%) stated that there was a similar level of risk of harm to human health or the environment from gene editing compared with naturally bred counterparts; and that 55% of public sector bodies and 58% of academic institutions did not support continuing to regulate products of gene editing as GMOs, where the resulting genetic changes are similar to those found naturally in organisms of the same species, or in very similar species that could be combined by traditional breeding.
However, the government provides no analysis of conflicts of interest within these academic institutions and public sector bodies. In an age when these institutions are heavily reliant on GMO industry funding, this is unacceptable. It also appears that these institutions represent a tiny proportion of the responses to the consultation – but the government prefers to go along with the wishes of the minority with vested interests rather than the majority with no financial stake in genetic engineering.
The government emphasises that it wants first to deregulate gene-edited plants, while backing off (for the time being) from deregulating gene-edited animals and other organisms – no doubt in response to the technical, biosafety and ethical minefield that is involved in the genetic engineering of animals and microbes.
The government repeats that it wants to deregulate gene-edited organisms "where the end product could have been produced by traditional breeding methods". Yet it still does not define how it could be decided that a certain gene-edited GMO could have been produced by traditional breeding. Certainly this could only be argued by ignoring all the unintended effects of the gene-editing process (which are highly unlikely to be produced by traditional breeding) and focusing on the superficial aspects of the intended product (it looks like a tomato, smells like a tomato, so must be a tomato).
The government says, "We will start by looking to ease some of the burdens which currently apply to research and development for gene edited plants, while maintaining the present regulatory system for animals and other organisms."
But this is mysterious. As Pat Thomas of Beyond GM comments, "Defra says it wants to cut the red tape and lift the regulatory burden on biotech research and development. But the process of, for example, applying for a field trial in the UK already has a very low burden of proof and takes only a couple of months from start to finish. Moreover, to our knowledge, few, if any, field trial applications have ever been refused in the UK, so it’s hard to imagine what the government can do to make what is essentially a rubber stamp process less burdensome, unless it is to remove sensible ‘safety-first’ measures like public notifications, requirements for buffer zones between the trial and other crops and procedures to stop trial material getting into the food chain and crop residues persisting in the field."
The government completely ignores scientific evidence pointing to the risks of gene editing for consumers and the environment. It only states, "The consultation received no new scientific evidence indicating that gene edited organisms should be regulated as GMOs." But they haven't even responded to the "old" evidence. It's clear that the government's push to deregulate has nothing to do with science and everything to do with putting money before life.
Beyond GM's comment on government response to consultation
GM Freeze's comment on government response to consultation
GMWatch's response submitted to the public consultation in March 2021