An amendment tabled in the new UK agriculture bill, designed to allow access to new gene-editing technology, has been withdrawn but the government has pledged to conduct a public consultation on the issue, amid indications that it could eventually offer its support for the technology.
The amendment, withdrawn on Tuesday (28 July) after a lengthy debate in the House of Lords, has stirred up considerable debate in the past few weeks, both over environmental concerns as well as potential ramifications for the future agrifood trade relationship of the UK and the EU.
Despite the withdrawal of the bill, the decision is not quite clear cut just yet, as it does not technically prevent a similar or adapted amendment being reintroduced at a later stage.
However, there are indications that the UK government is not ready to offer its support for such an amendment right now, before the public consultation has been completed, but is generally looking favourably at gene editing, sources told EURACTIV.
A spokesperson for DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] confirmed to EURACTIV that the government will carry out a public consultation before making any changes to the current approach.
They said that existing GMO regulations will remain in force through the EU Withdrawal Act, but declined to comment further on what exactly this consultation will entail.
However, the spokesperson stressed that “organisms produced by modern mutagenesis techniques (such as gene editing) should not be subject to genetic modification regulation if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods”.
“The government recognises the opportunities precision breeding techniques could bring for farmers and the environment and remains committed to science-based policy and regulation of precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing,” they said.
This standpoint echoes that of the UK National Farmers Union, who recently came out in favour of the technology.
The withdrawal of this amendment was welcomed by environmental groups, who have been fiercely campaigning against the amendment, which they warned could open the doors to a wide range of genetic engineering techniques.
The campaign group Beyond GM tweeted that this “is a good outcome” but warned that the “government is still committed to deregulation and we must demand a more democratic and inclusive process”.
Another UK umbrella campaign organisation, GM Freeze, added that they “will be pressing for the consultation to be a meaningful in-depth consideration of public opinion and up to date science”.
The amendment was staunchly defended by some members of the Lords, including Lord Krebs, who stressed the potential of the technology to make UK agriculture “greener, more productive and more sustainable”.
Baroness Hayman said she hoped that “any future discussions on GMOs will be much more nuanced, seek to find common ground and be focused on the outcomes we are trying to achieve, rather than on very divisive attitudes”.
She added she would argue that it is their “responsibility to provide the appropriate regulatory framework for these advances, after what has been widely seen as the flawed ECJ judgment of 2018,” referring to the European Court of Justice ruling that organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
Baronness Young of Old Scone expressed concerns that rushing to deregulate gene editing to bring the UK into alignment with the US risks “not being able to continue to do business with our major existing EU markets”.
She added that it would be prudent to wait for the EU study on gene-editing, due to be published next April.
Beat Späth, director of agricultural biotechnology for EuropaBio, an influential biotech industry group, previously told EURACTIV that he hoped this amendment would offer an opportunity for “a modernisation of the decades-old approach in view of ground-breaking new science”, something he added is overdue both in the UK and in the EU.
“With this move, the UK would send a strong signal to its leading public science institutions working on biotechnology and genome editing,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]