UK government push for deregulation of gene editing sets alarm bells ringing
EXCERPT: The EU stance on gene editing isn’t anti-science, despite what the Brexiters with their irrational grudges would have you believe. It’s just pro-consumer. UK agriculture would do well to be the same.
Opinion: Gene editing fails to tick the boxes for consumers
Farmers Weekly, 9 February 2021
It was with a rising sense of frustration that I listened to the former Ukip candidate, George Eustice, announce a consultation on changing the regulations around gene editing (GE) technology at the Oxford Farming Conference last month.
“Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence,” he blustered in that comedically stoic and stern-faced way that he and his fellow Brexiters have made such a speciality of. (I wonder what policy decisions were based on before we regained our much-vaunted sovereignty – witchcraft and superstition, perhaps?)
But before I go into the reasons why I’m against this latest in a long line of magic-bullet “solutions” for agriculture, let me confess that, solely with my farmer hat on, I can see its seductive appeal.
With advocates maintaining that it will help us grow crops with fewer pesticides and less fertiliser, and allow the breeding of livestock that is resistant to disease, at face value it’s difficult to argue against.
But here’s my problem; if I take a step back and look at this with my consumer hat on instead, at best it appears slightly disingenuous and, at worst, extremely confusing.
Haven’t farmers spent the past few years arguing that the food they produce here in the UK is the most natural and sustainable in the world?
Haven’t they told everyone they can get hold of not to buy that nasty old foreign produce that’s pumped full of growth hormones and is responsible for the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest?
Don’t they collectively throw up their hands in horror at the very idea of lab-cultured meat and decry it as the devil’s own work?
But now you’re assuring me that food that has had undesirable genetic code removed from its DNA with what are effectively molecular scissors is perfectly acceptable and absolutely safe to feed my family just because you say it is? Okaaaay then.
You can see my concern here. And even if you don’t feel like heeding the thoughts of a simple Welsh tenant farmer, the words of James Bailey, the executive director for Waitrose, who also spoke at the conference, should set deafeningly loud alarm bells ringing as he highlighted his concerns around the technology.
Shoppers want to know “where their food comes from and how it is produced – if our customers don’t buy the food, there is no point in us getting involved in the market to procure it”.
Slightly further afield, it’s also worth noting that the EU itself shows little inclination for changing its stance on any form of genetic manipulation of food.
And with the UK exporting £14.2bn worth of our produce there, out of a total £23.6bn worldwide, the whole idea starts to fall down very quickly.
And I haven’t even got to the issue of whether all this focus on policy and science takes away from arguably more important questions about the real meaning of stewardship of the land, and about our role as farmers in nature and in society at large in 2021.
The EU stance on gene-editing isn’t anti-science, despite what the Brexiters with their irrational grudges would have you believe. It’s just pro-consumer. UK agriculture would do well to be the same.
Opinion columnist, Farmers Weekly
Will Evans farms beef cattle, arable crops and a free-range egg unit in partnership with his parents over 200ha near Wrexham in North Wales. He also produces a podcast, Rock & Roll Farming.