IMAGINE having a pair of magic scissors that would allow you to ‘improve’ natural food. With these scissors you could cut away all the annoying things about it and paste in desirable new characteristics: higher yields, superior nutrients, and so on. Theoretically speaking, such a technology is with us now: gene or genome editing. The most publicised of these “molecular scissors” to date is CRISPR, but there are others.

Despite the diplomatically opaque new name, gene editing is turbo-charged genetic engineering, only so far with better PR. But if the free traders and corporate influencers in Westminster get their way and deregulate the law that currently governs genetic engineering there, gene edited foods could be green lighted, unlabelled, for English plates, so that most people wouldn’t realise that they were eating them.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would then be put under heavy international corporate pressure to do the same.

Like the old guard, now stigmatised, genetically modified (GM) food before it, with its unhappy history of failures to deliver and creation of new problems, such as the creation of herbicide-resistant super-weeds, proponents of gene editing spin futuristic yarns about all the miracles they’re rustling up for us.

Less starchy potatoes and corn, pork from super-muscly pigs, spicy tomatoes, and mushrooms that resist browning, are some front runners. In fact the mushrooms have already bypassed US Department of Agriculture regulation.

How can this second wave of genetically engineered foods be a realistic prospect when the first lot were so unpopular in the UK and the EU that the general public shunned them?

Proponents claim that gene editing is a precise, safe technology with predictable outcomes. Sound familiar? They say that they’re only making very small changes to the genetic make-up of foods, merely mimicking what might happen through natural mutation.

Tellingly, they seek patents for these altered foods. Patents are only granted if you can show an inventive step that is man-made. So claims that gene editing is simply causing changes that could happen naturally go out the window.

Don’t worry, though, they assure us that gene editing carries no more risk than conventional breeding. In fact, there is no evidence to support this blasé assertion because no feeding studies have been carried out in either humans or animals.

Along with scientists from around the world, I attended a briefing on gene editing led by the London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou. It left me deeply concerned. He flagged up the growing body of gold standard scientific research that highlights the unintended and potentially dangerous risks that gene edited foods pose. Far from being precise and predictable, these lab-based, artificial interventions damage plant or animal DNA, not just at the intended site of the genetic alteration, but elsewhere.

For instance, it emerged last year that a hornless bull gene edited by a Minnesota company was unintentionally contaminated by bacterial genes from another species.

Gene editing alters how genes function, which can create new allergens and toxins. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility – 61 leading international scientists – has expressed grave concerns. They say that the radical nature of gene edited changes could result in “unexpectedly high levels” of known toxins, or even in the creation of novel ones.

So, the bottom line here is that there’s a push to slip gene edited food ingredients into our food, unlabelled, most likely sneakily lost in multi-ingredient, ultra-processed foods, on the assumption that they pose no risk. So far, the general public is blissfully unaware of it.

To ensure public safety and the integrity of the food we eat, its absolutely vital that all ingredients from gene edited crops, plants, or farm animals, be subjected to risk assessment of the most stringent nature.

These novel creations must be tightly regulated, with track and trace systems in place so that in the case of a genetically engineered public health disaster, retailers can put out effective product recalls.

Most crucially, gene edited food must be clearly labelled as genetically modified so that we can choose for ourselves if we’re prepared to eat it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not.

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