The decision by the U.K. Parliament to relax rules around the planting of some genetically modified crops in Britain is being celebrated this week in an excellent Observer editorial published by sister publication The Guardian. (The papers share an owner.)
“In an overpopulated, overheated world that desperately needs secure food supplies and to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, [anti-GMO] barriers should no longer be allowed to restrict progress,” the editors write. “We urgently need solutions and Britain, one of the world’s leaders in animal and plant research, must be free to play a key role in this agricultural revolution. Blanket bans of genetically altered crops and animals can be countenanced no longer.”
In the works at least since Brexit, Britain warming toward GMOs comes at a key moment, with the island facing record food prices due to inflation, lingering supply-chain issues related to COVID-19, and knock-on effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Britain’s deregulatory plans around GMO crops focus on gene editing, a type of genetic modification that “is heavily restricted in the EU.” Indeed, current European Union rules “make gene editing for crops and livestock almost impossible.”
Britain’s embrace of gene editing in agriculture places more post-Brexit distance between it and the E.U. That’s intentional. Indeed, the British government this week couched its GMO plans as part of its overall goal to “deliver on the promise of Brexit.”
It’s also a good thing. As I explained in a 2019 column, the E.U.’s anti-GMO rules are ridiculously bad. Last year, seeking to begin to shed those rules, the British government announced it would eliminate “existing costs and red tape” to allow field trials of gene-edited crops. The change is part of a plan to “allow far greater use of gene editing in crops in the UK, and a redefinition in law of genetic modification.” Environment Secretary George Eustice said the plan is intended to tackle a host of issues, including “food security, climate change[,] and biodiversity loss.”
More details about the plans were revealed recently in the annual Queen’s Speech. Those plans include “considering the next steps in enabling gene-edited plants and plant products to be brought to market.” The proposals were welcomed by farming and crop-science advocates. Leading British scientists have also hailed the plans as “great news,” “very welcome,” and “pro-innovation.”
Gene editing is most commonly associated with CRISPR, which boasts “the potential to be a pivotal innovation in the drive to feed the current and growing world population.” CRISPR technology “uses a process known as mutagenesis—turning on or off specific DNA that’s present naturally in an organism,” I explained several years ago. On the other hand, “GMO crops are produced by genetic modification, also known as transgenesis, which involves inserting DNA from one organism into another.”
It is the former, rather than the latter, that Britain is moving to allow. That has some critics questioning the scope of regulatory reform and pace of scientific progress. For example, while hailing the loosening of restrictions, the Observer editorial also noted the scope of reform is narrow and “unsatisfactory.” They urge Britain to overcome its “misguided government thinking” and allow the introduction of other GMO crops and foods—not just those created by gene editing.
Why? As an example, the editorial cites transgenic GMO potatoes that can fight devastating potato blight. The GMO potato was also reported on last year by Wired, which raised its unchanged legal status—it can’t be sold for food in Britain—to question the perception Britain’s government is really “blowing away the cobwebs of EU legislation.”
As I’ve noted many times, including here, I am neither pro-GMO nor anti-GMO. And, as I’ve explained in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us and in various columns over the years, if a crop or food were found to harm people or the environment in a way others don’t—whether that crop or food is GMO, organic, or conventional—then government may have the authority (and even good reason) to step in and regulate that crop or food differently.
In a 2016 column on finding a middle ground in the contentious debate over GMOs, I argued that governments should treat GMO crops like they treat other crops, and GMO foods like they treat other foods. No better. No worse. No different. The Observer editorial argues for the same approach. “Sensibly, [gene-edited crops] will now be treated in the same way as those produced by conventional means,” they write.
Britain’s got a long way to go to establish fair and sensible GMO regulations. But unlike the rest of Europe, Britain’s growing embrace of genetic modification and science puts it on the right path.