Advisory body deals blow to UK gene editing plans
29 Jun 2022 --- “Not fit for purpose,” is the response from the UK Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) to government attempts to introduce a bill to deregulate food editing of crops and animals.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is trying to take advantage of the opportunities brought by Brexit to tap into the precision breeding market.
The bill is a key component of the countries’ strategy to become a global innovation hub.
A new law would be tailored to allow food producers to use genetic technologies to speed up traditional crop breeding that would otherwise take years or decades.
Advocates defend gene-editing claiming that it would lead to less pesticide use and could aid with issues like the rapid onset of climate change and it’s impact on vital crops.
However, the RPC gives a “red” grade (or failing) regarding the new bill’s impact on businesses, including small and micro-businesses.
The body requests more information and further clarification of the new policy and, particularly, its impact on small businesses. However, current regulation is also not ideal, it says.
“The impact assessment notes that the current regulation has a disproportionate impact on small and medium businesses and, as a result, SMBs would gain more than larger businesses from its removal,” reads the report.
In the categories of “rationale”, “cost-benefit analysis” and “wider impacts’, the report gives a “weak” review. The RPC defends this “weak” evaluation by saying that more discussion on “impacts, labeling and traceability” is needed. Asking as well for an improved “assessment of the competition, innovation, consumer and environmental impacts.”
The report also raises concern for “devolved administrations” as the legislation will be applied in England only, with the governmental impact having no analysis on the trade of modified goods between the regions.
In the last section, “monitoring and evaluation”, a “good” review is given as Defra “has a clear understanding of what will be used to determine if the policy is working effectively and successfully.”
The RPC criticizes that Defra’s impact assessment didn’t rely on independent evaluations.
“Much of the evidence regarding risk discussed in the impact assessment is drawn from interested parties, or based on scientific trials, that do not replicate real-world conditions (including farmers’ behavior). Such a narrative could, in turn, impede research, development and evaluation of an important new technology.”
The report states that consumer sentiment toward gene-editing has to be further considered, especially its significance regarding the cost implications.
However, the impact assessment by Defra does not consider it.
“(The bill) sends a signal to address the information asymmetries between public perception and true risk which is hindering development that could support the wider public good.”
In a joint statement this month, 32 groups and individuals representing the food, farming, animal welfare and other interests urged members of the UK parliament to revise the bill and protect farmers, businesses and citizens.
“Crucially, the bill proposes to remove all requirements of traceability, including labeling, from these technologies. If it passes in its current form, no one – including farmers, businesses and citizens – will be able to exercise the right to choose whether or not to use, purchase or consume the products of these technologies,” express the signing organizations.
“All surveys, polls and consultations show that people and businesses in the UK – whether or not they are supportive of agricultural genetic technologies – believe these technologies
and their products should be regulated, traceable and labeled.”
“The government’s goal is total deregulation, but last year’s public consultation showed that 85% of respondents wanted to see gene-editing regulated as GMO,” says Pat Thomas, a director of Beyond GM, one of the companies that signed the statement.
A consumer perceptions study by the UK Food Standards Agency found low levels of awareness about the topic among consumers in the UK. Highlighting that there is an existing need to educate the public.
By Marc Cervera
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