Ministers want to change the EU definition of a GMO to exclude gene-edited organisms
The article below reports that "a cross-party group of MPs and Lords have called for the government to boost the British farming industry by ditching EU rules which block the access to precision breeding tools. Amendments to the Agriculture Bill have been put forward which would provide new powers for ministers to make changes to the UK Environmental Protection Act. Ministers are seeking to change the EU definition of GMO in the Act for a definition compatible with the Cartagena Protocol – to which the UK is a signatory. The move would give the UK's scientists, farmers, plant breeders and animal breeders the same access to new gene editing technologies as countries outside the EU have."
Leading this initiative is the MP Julian Sturdy, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture.
But in fact, there appears to be nothing in the Cartagena Protocol that exempts gene-edited organisms from the definition of GMOs.
Here's the Protocol's definition of GMOs (called in the text "living modified organisms"):
"(g) 'Living modified organism' means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology;
(h) 'Living organism' means any biological entity capable of transferring or replicating genetic material, including sterile organisms, viruses and viroids;
(i) 'Modern biotechnology' means the application of:
a. In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
b. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family,
that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection."
The UK government seems to be planning on engaging in semantic acrobatics to argue either that gene-edited organisms don't have a "novel combination of genetic material" obtained through the GM process, and/or that "natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers" are not overcome.
In GMWatch's view they will have a very hard time getting away with using those arguments. That's because most, if not all, gene-edited organisms would appear to fall under the Cartagena Protocol's definition of GMOs.
It's possible that any attempts at "creative" definitions of a GMO by the UK government will be challenged in the courts. Also, assuming that the EU's GMO regulations are kept unchanged, the UK will face a situation in which a gene-edited organism will be defined as a GMO in the EU, as per the European Court of Justice's ruling, and a non-GMO in the UK. That will make for interesting complications with the UK's major trading partner, the EU.
Pat Thomas of Beyond GM commented on the move: "This amendment sends up all sorts of red flags and questions, including why this and why now? Amendments at this stage of the Agriculture Bill should really be little more than tidying up or altering wording to something that was agreed to in the Commons passage.
"If this issue is so vital to agriculture then why wasn’t the definition of a genetically modified organism flagged up in the original text of the Bill? Why try to sneak it in? What Julian Sturdy and the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture are doing here is trying to push through a substantial amendment to the Bill that is poorly thought out, not guided by robust science and has had no proper debate.
"But it also demonstrates that government priorities around food and farming are increasingly being influenced by the industrial and bioeconomy strategies, which may be wrapped up in pretty green bows and words like carbon, climate and biodiversity but which nevertheless favour continued industrialisation of the food system.
"Being a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol means signing up to all of it, not just the bits that are useful to you in the moment. That means that the UK is obliged to 'regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology'."
MPs call for Ag Bill to boost precision breeding post-Brexit
by FarmingUK Team
FarmingUK.com, 24 May 2020
A cross-party group of MPs and Lords have called for the government to boost the British farming industry by ditching EU rules which block the access to precision breeding tools.
Amendments to the Agriculture Bill have been put forward which would provide new powers for ministers to make changes to the UK Environmental Protection Act.
Ministers are seeking to change the EU definition of GMO in the Act for a definition compatible with the Cartagena Protocol – to which the UK is a signatory.
The move would give the UK's scientists, farmers, plant breeders and animal breeders the same access to new gene editing technologies as countries outside the EU have.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture, chaired by MP Julian Sturdy, has now written to Defra Secretary George Eustice.
The APPG has urged the government to introduce the enabling amendment during the Lords stages of the Agriculture Bill.
The group has taken an interest in prospects for advanced gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 to deliver improvements in the speed and precision of crop and livestock breeding.
MPs say the techniques could present the UK with opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency and more durable pest and disease resistance.
However, in July 2018 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that these new precision breeding tools should be regulated as GMOs, putting the EU at odds with the US, Australia and Japan.
The ruling has been criticised by some scientists and breeders as a block to innovation seen as vital for the UK's response to climate change and food security.
Ministers have indicated their disagreement with the CJEU ruling, and stated the government’s view that gene edited organisms should not be subjected to GM regulation if the DNA changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.
APPG chair Julian Sturdy MP said the proposed amendments to the Agriculture Bill would 'liberate' the UK’s bioscience sector.
“This amendment is also about scientific democracy... freeing up Britain’s fantastic research scientists to develop traits which will support more sustainable farming systems in less developed parts of the world.
“These steps will provide an important signal that as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis we will use the best available science to address critical challenges of climate, food security and nutrition,” he said.
Tom Bradshaw, NFU vice-president has backed the amendments, calling them an 'opportunity' for the UK farming industry.
“The cost of not taking this opportunity is the UK being unable to make use of a set of breeding tools that are already being shown to offer solutions to intractable problems such as the need to protect plants and animals from disease."