Briefing shows that the Bill could unleash "hidden" GMOs containing novel and potentially hazardous genetic changes into our food and fields
The UK government’s draft Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill would remove a whole class of genetically modified plants and livestock animals, which it calls “precision bred organisms”, from the safeguards provided by the UK’s existing GMO regulations. The Bill assumes, without proof and contrary to much existing evidence, that some GMOs could have resulted from “traditional” or “natural” processes and therefore are safe and do not need to be subjected to safety testing or labelling.
A new legal and scientific briefing highlights serious problems with the Bill as it stands. It shows that the unacceptably broad definition of a “precision bred organism” given in the Bill threatens to unleash GMOs containing novel, radical, and potentially hazardous genetic changes into our food and fields, without regard to the risks they might pose to our health and the environment. And because they won't be labelled, consumers and farmers won't be able to avoid them.
The briefing was commissioned by the sustainability group ARROW Northwest and was produced with the assistance of their legal representatives, the leading environmental law firm Leigh Day.
Misleading definition of “precision bred”
The briefing explains that the Bill’s definition of a “precision bred organism” is wide and could be misleading. It says, “A large number of genetic changes could, in theory, ‘have resulted from’ either traditional processes or natural transformation: but it is somewhat artificial to say that this is the case if (for example) the mutation is a 1 in a million chance, or would only have occurred very slowly – say over the course of a million years. Nevertheless, the absence of appropriate qualifiers in the Bill means that genetic changes that fall within either of those two extreme examples would still meet the definition in the Bill.”
Bill encourages GMO developers to disregard crucial genetic changes
The briefing shows that the Bill enables GMO developers to disregard certain genetic features that are crucial in controlling the proper functioning of genes when it comes to deciding whether the GMO could have arisen naturally and therefore whether it needs to be subjected to the stricter GMO regulatory system or can be given a “free pass”.
This is in spite of the fact that the individual quality of these genetic features can make all the difference between a safe and a poisonous GM plant, or a healthy GM animal and one that has a severe disease or abnormality.
The crucial features that the Bill says can be disregarded are the copy number of genes, epigenetic changes, location of the feature in the genome, and genetic material that does not result in a functional protein.
Disregarding these vital features places human and animal health and the environment in danger.
For example, in livestock animals, the copy number of genes is known to alter the gene functioning and the characteristics of an animal – which could make the difference between health and severe disease or abnormalities. In plants, the copy number of genes and epigenetic status can affect defences against environmental stresses such as diseases and adverse weather conditions.
It is also not valid to assume that genetic material that does not result in a functional protein can be disregarded. Proteins that are assumed to be non-functional can still interact with other proteins to change their form or behavior, potentially changing a plant’s biochemistry and composition (this includes the production of novel poisons and allergens), with unknown consequences to human and animal health and the environment.
New regulatory regimes
The briefing notes that the Bill introduces two new regimes – one for research and other non-commercial uses, and the other for marketing purposes. It also establishes a power to introduce a regime for food and feed that has been created using these organisms (though there are no mandatory requirements in the Bill regarding what this regime should look like).
These proposals, according to the briefing, are very lax, afford maximum discretion to the Secretary of State to create a regulatory system of his own design, offer limited opportunities for Parliamentary scrutiny, and amount to a substantial reduction in environmental protection compared to the existing regulatory position.
Under the proposed new release regime, GMOs that fall within the Bill’s wide definition only have to be notified to the Secretary of State before they are released into the environment – permission does not have to be sought.
The Bill does not require a risk assessment prior to release.
While farmers have an important interest in knowing whether GM crops are being released near their farms, they have no way of knowing under the new Bill. Their crops could be negatively affected and organic certification could be threatened.
The briefing proposes that the Bill is amended so that there is a requirement to notify neighbouring farms before these organisms are released into the environment, via scientific trials or otherwise: "This is not a matter that should be left to the discretion of the Secretary of State."
The Bill says regulations “may” provide a regulatory system for marketing food and feed produced from “precision bred” GMOs, but there is no requirement for such regulations to be made and no indication of what they might contain. The regulations can therefore be as “light touch” as the Secretary of State wishes, if indeed they are introduced at all.
No GMO labelling
The briefing says, “It is deeply troubling that there is no requirement in primary legislation for food that includes ‘precision bred’ organisms to be appropriately labelled. Consumers have a right to know what they are eating.”
The briefing suggests that the Bill is amended to introduce a hard requirement for clear on-package labelling before these organisms enter the food chain.
The briefing states that overall, “The new systems set up by the Bill amount to substantial environmental deregulation. They are a serious rolling back of environmental protection compared to the pre-Brexit position.”
“Henry VIII” powers
The Bill reserves a total of 31 delegated powers to the discretion of the Secretary of State. Three are so-called “Henry VIII” powers, which enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in an Act of Parliament using secondary legislation, which means a minimum of Parliamentary scrutiny and debate. They are named after Henry VIII, a king who ruled by proclamation.
The Bill also states that a power to make regulations includes the power to make “different provision for different purposes”. Clause 1(8) allows the Secretary of State to widen the definition of a “precision bred organism” through regulations, via an amendment to the definition of “modern biotechnology.” So the already very wide definition in the Bill can be widened even further at the Secretary of State’s discretion without Parliamentary scrutiny.
Potential breach of UK’s international legal obligations
The briefing notes several ways in which the Bill may be in breach of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that aims to protect biodiversity from the impact of GMOs, to which the UK is a signatory. Potential breaches include a failure to monitor, label, and properly assess the risks of GMOs that are exported to other signatory countries.
The regulation of GMOs is a devolved matter, meaning that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be able to make their own decisions on it. The Bill only applies to England.
However, the UK Internal Market Act of 2020 allows for untested and unlabelled GMOs to be sold in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they can be marketed lawfully in England. Therefore the devolved governments will have no control over the marketing of these GMOs on their territories, or over possible cross-border contamination.
In GMWatch’s view this is a recipe for conflict. The Scottish Government has warned the Secretary of State that, “Such an outcome is unacceptable. The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Internal Market Act, and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of its devolved powers to set standards within devolved policy areas.”
Scientifically unsound and legally risky
The briefing concludes that there should be a requirement in primary legislation to notify neighbouring farmers about GMO releases and to label food and feed containing these organisms. At the moment both of these matters are left in the Bill to the discretion of the Secretary of State via powers to create secondary legislation.
Commenting on the briefing, GMWatch director Claire Robinson said, “Many of us who work in environmental, public welfare and animal welfare civil society groups know there’s a lot wrong with this Bill. But the briefing brings a new and welcome perspective from experienced environmental lawyers. It shows that the Bill is not only scientifically unsound, as GMWatch has pointed out, but also legally risky.
“The government must radically revise the Bill to preserve freedom of choice for consumers and farmers.”