Proposed changes in law would make England's fields into a "Wild West" for GMO developers
The Westminster government has released the draft text of the "statutory instrument"* that will enable ministers to change the law governing releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in field trials for research in England, without further Parliamentary debate or oversight.
The proposed new law would wipe out existing protections for the environment and public health from the risks posed by these trials. It would remove the current requirement for GMO developers to submit an environmental risk assessment or seek the consent of the Secretary of State before running a GMO field trial. It is also scientifically unjustifiable, as explained below.
As the explanatory memo published by the government states, "The purpose of this instrument is to remove the need to submit a risk assessment and seek consent from the Secretary of State before they can release, for non-marketing purposes, genetically modified (GM) plants that could have been produced by traditional breeding. Instead, a notice must be given to the Secretary of State with certain prescribed information."
The memo and draft statutory instrument repeat the scientific errors of DEFRA's publicity materials on the proposed changes. The wording assumes that GM plants "could have been produced by traditional breeding" or "could have occurred naturally", despite:
* the lack of any government definition for "could have been produced by traditional breeding" or "could have occurred naturally". This form of wording, as well as the assumptions underlying it, has been identified as scientifically unjustifiable and problematic, even by bodies that are favourably inclined towards the use of GMOs in agriculture
* a complete absence of evidence that any given GMO is the same as an organism produced by traditional breeding, both compositionally and at the genetic level (if you look properly, it won't be the same)
* the large body of scientific evidence showing that GM techniques, including gene editing, produce unintended changes as well as intended changes. This means that organisms produced using these techniques will inevitably be different from their non-GM parents and some of the differences could affect safety for consumption and/or for the environment.
Ignoring process means ignoring real effects of genetic engineering
The government claims in its memo that "it is the characteristics of the end product that determines its risk to human health and the environment – not how they were made".
In making this claim, the government shows that it is still determined to ignore the processes of genetic engineering and all the unintended effects that these generate, despite these having been pointed out in responses to the consultation (including GMWatch's). This means that only the intended changes will have regulatory oversight; the unintended changes, which can add up to genetic mayhem, will be ignored.
Commenting on the draft text, GMWatch editor Claire Robinson said, "The government's proposed law would make England into a 'Wild West' for GMO developers. The current protections from GMO releases in field trials would be completely removed. The government claims that it is acting on the best scientific advice, but the scientists who let these changes through should be ashamed of themselves. They have put commercial considerations before health and the environment and betrayed the public trust."
London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou commented, “The government’s statutory instrument is awash with technical inaccuracy and self-contradiction. No one doubts that procedurally, GM is completely different from traditional breeding and the way in which natural genetic mutation and variation takes place. Therefore GM possesses its own unique spectrum of unintended genetic and biochemical outcomes that must be taken into account in any legislation governing its commercialisation. In saying, ‘It is the characteristics of the end product that determines its risk to human health and the environment – not how they were made’, the government is being completely dishonest to the science underpinning all types of GM technologies.
“The government has always said that it is led by the ‘science’ but in this regard one is left wondering what ‘science’ it is following. It appears that in its effort to promote and expedite commercial development of GM products, the government is ignoring what the science is telling us and yet again putting money ahead of public health and environmental wellbeing.”
Existing text of the GMO releases law of 2002:
Government's explanatory memo regarding new statutory instrument:
Draft text of the statutory instrument:
* A statutory instrument is a form of legislation which allows the provisions of an Act of Parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without Parliament having to pass a new Act. They are also referred to as secondary, delegated or subordinate legislation.