IT’S been obvious for over two decades that there is no public appetite in the UK or Europe for genetically modified (GM) food. In October, for instance, when Food Standards Scotland surveyed citizens, it found that only one in ten of us would be likely to buy GM food even if it was significantly cheaper.

But the pro-GM lobby never gives up. Now the UK Government wants to change the law in England so that farmers there can use crops and animals created by risky, new-wave genetic engineering techniques, known as genome or gene editing. Before Brexit, this technology was blocked by a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling.

At the recent Oxford Farming conference, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice launched a public consultation on the subject and reiterated the usual magic bullet promises so beloved of GM proponents. Gene editing “could unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food”.

Ben Macpherson, Scotland’s Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, quickly said that Holyrood’s line on the cultivation of GM crops has not changed. “We will be maintaining Scotland’s GM-free crop status, in line with our commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards.”

Unfortunately, the recently enacted Internal Market Act means that Scotland is now powerless to bar goods from England, and so would effectively be forced to sell any gene-edited crops authorised there.

Encouragingly, this move towards legalising this perilous and unneeded technology has not been well received from widespread perspectives.

An editorial in The Grocer, the voice of record for the food and food retailing industry, spelled out the likely consequences. “It seems already apparent the UK’s deregulation of gene editing will not necessarily benefit farmers and the UK’s domestic food production. If it causes significant damage to EU trade, then many could go out of business.”

The Grocer also warns that the EU could see UK deregulation of gene editing as a regression on existing environmental standards, and impose 40% tariffs on UK foods heading to Europe.

Animal welfare organisations are up-in-arms. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) sees gene editing as “a modern, cutting-edge piece of biotechnology being used to support an antiquated farming system: the factory farming of animals”.

CIWF warns that it will be used to drive farm animals to faster growth and higher yields, and exacerbate animal suffering. “The proper answer to tackling disease is to keep animals in systems in which good health is inherent in the farming methods, rather than being propped up by gene editing.”

The RSPCA points out that this proposed change in law would lead to food from genetically altered animals being offered for sale on supermarket shelves or in restaurants, “an unwanted and unacceptable development even if the food were labelled”.

As the RSPCA sees it, claims that gene editing techniques are much more precise than previous methods are disingenuous and potentially misleading.

“Gene editing is an unproven technology which does not take into account animal welfare, ethical or public concerns. It involves procedures that cause pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm and is an inefficient process, using large numbers of animals to produce a single individual with the desired result”.

And going on its existing track record, gene editing has nothing to offer the environment. The only gene-edited crop currently commercialised – Cibus's SU canola, a type of rape seed – is altered to survive being sprayed with toxic herbicides. No gene edited crop is available anywhere in the world that offers environmental benefits.

Beyond GM, a campaign to raise public awareness and engagement in the GM food debate. believes the government has “badly miscalculated” and urges concerned citizens to respond to the public consultation, before the deadline on 17th March.

“We encourage people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to take part because the devolved nations hold a lot of power in this discussion, and any changes to English law would impact all parts of the UK.”

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England is pushing the high-tech, quick-fix GM agenda favoured by industrial farming corporations. Let’s tell them where to stick it.

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