The government has just finished a fact-finding discussion with the public called a “consultation,” aiming to decide whether crops genetically edited to have desirable new traits can be sold in the country without being labelled as GMOs, a highly charged acronym that stands for “genetically modified organisms,” which have long been banned in Britain and in the rest of Europe.
Currently, GMO products made from modified soybeans and corn have been widely grown and available for years in places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India, and other countries. In fact, GMOs account for the vast majority of U.S. soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beet crops—but those same crops are almost non-existent in Europe, except when used to feed livestock.
Many have concerns about the future, as the government evaluates the findings from the consultation. On the one hand, proponents say using the cutting-edge modern bioengineering technologies is crucial for feeding billions of people this century, as the planet warms. But stalwarts for tried-and-true plant breeding methods say gene editing could give rise to dangerous mutations or to crops that could be patented by large ag companies trying to monopolize staple crops.
Gideon Henderson, an Oxford University geochemist who represents the “pro” camp, is chief scientific advisor to the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He said during an online panel in April held by a British NGO called the Sustainable Food Trust that gene editing will make crops more resilient in the face of climate change.
“As climate warms, and as it already is, we’re seeing stress to our crop systems, particularly in the developing world,” he said. “Gene editing will help us build crops that can resist drought and thrive under heat stress.”
Henderson and others insist there is a difference between crops produced through gene editing and traditional GMOs. But such claims have raised hackles among anti-GMO scientists and activists who worry as much about the unexpected consequences from using relatively new genetic tools like CRISPR on food as they do about GMOs.
“If [the UK] was to weaken its standards to match those of the United States, then it means that these genetically modified products can come into the U.K. unlabelled,” says Michael Antoniou, a professor of molecular genetics at King’s College London. “And therefore, the consumer would have no way of avoiding them. They’ll be denying the fundamental rights of people to buy and eat what they want.”
For Antoniou, the fix is already in. He sees no difference between older, first-generation GMO crops and crops produced through newer genetic engineering techniques. The consultation was a mere formality, he says, a moment’s pause on the bum-rush road to changing the British system of agriculture forever—away from traditional breeding and towards an American-style approach that favours GMO crops.
He notes that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his first speech after taking office, explicitly mentioned that completing Brexit would “liberate” the nation’s biotechnology industry from anti-genetic modification laws.
“He was sending a clear message, basically to the United States, that he had every intention to change the law,” Antoniou says. “It’s really meant to open the floodgates for importation of American biotech products. The government hasn’t really hidden the fact that this consultation wasn’t really a consultation—the way they ran it, it was more of a PR exercise. It was blatant propaganda,” he concludes.