With Tory sleaze, mass strikes and the return of Liz Truss hogging headlines, a vital piece of legislation is flying under the radar – and receiving far less scrutiny than it should.
The third reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in the House of Lords last week lasted all of 10 minutes. Half of that time was spent by peers congratulating themselves and each other on their efforts to improve the controversial legislation.
In reality, no substantive amendments were made and the bill, which removes regulatory control from genetically modified “precision bred organisms” (PBOs) – in other words, from gene-edited crops and foods – is now largely in its final form. The expectation is that it will return to the House of Commons and be swiftly shunted into law before the spring.
What just happened?
While it would strain all credibility to describe the grandstanding in the bill’s first round in the Commons as a “debate”, in the Lords, more substantive and serious questions and concerns were raised. These focused on the broad deregulatory scope of the bill (which extends far beyond agriculture to wild and free-living plants and animals, including pets), the science, economics, ethics and laws around genetic modification and the lack of provision for labelling and monitoring an entirely new category of novel organisms in the environment and food system.
Peers’ concerns echoed those of three government agencies – the Regulatory Policy Committee, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee – which separately concluded the bill was “not fit for purpose”, “unclear” and failed to provide “adequate justification” for the laundry list of new regulations that could quietly be brought into force, without meaningful debate, under the terms of the bill.
In all cases, the government batted concerns away with an all-purpose riposte: “Our scientific advisors have assured us that…”.
Frustrated Peers have described trying to get amendments accepted only to be told by the government that they “could be seen as being too burdensome a requirement for industry“. The government was described as having a “protective carapace” that prevented serious concerns making a dent in the bill process.
What happens next?
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According to Science Minister George Freeman, the UK will soon become “a global testbed” for agritech, gene-edited crops and synthetic biology, among other technologies.
A few things still stand in the way of that ambition. Importantly, the bill applies only to England and, as it heads back to the Commons for its final phase, both Scotland and Wales have rejected proposed legislation to extend its reach to those countries.
In spite of the most recent YouGov poll showing that eight in 10 adults in the UK believe that “precision bred” crops, animals and foods should be safety checked, studied for environmental impacts, labelled and traceable through the farming and food system, there are no plans for any of these things.
From public good to “for your own good”
Favouring promises over proof, the government insists unregulated PBOs will be good for the environment and for food. Much of its public outreach has been focussed on spreading the good news about PBOs. But in the same YouGov poll, a sizeable proportion of respondents expressed a lack of confidence that the government’s plans for PBOs would bring meaningful benefits.
A leaked letter to all peers from Lord Benyon, the Defra Minister who led the bill through the Lords, shows good reason for that lack of confidence. In it, he suggests that requiring agricultural genetic engineering to meet a “public good” criteria is too hard and likely to “drive research towards other countries”.
This failure to take public concerns seriously, to consider whether precision-bred Genetically Modified Organisms should serve some good beyond market creation and to see stakeholder engagement as something more than indoctrination could prove fatal for those anticipated markets.
A grim spectre
The government has been pushing this bill for a long time and its passage will undoubtedly be couched in terms of a “Brexit bonus”. Indeed, for some, this bill and what it symbolises in relation to freeing the UK from EU rules seems to have taken on near mythic proportions as a good hill to die on.
On the other hand, Lord Winston, a respected professor, scientist and genetics expert, describes the bill as a “massive experiment” with the potential to cause “great harm”.
Nevertheless, this inadequate, flawed, industry-led, scientifically, legally, economically and ethically dodgy bill will become law.
All that remains is the grim spectre of King Charles – once a powerful opponent of agricultural genetic engineering and eloquent spokesperson for sustainable, humane and human-scale food and farming – impotently signing into law an Act guaranteed to make the Royal gorge rise.
Pat Thomas is a founder/director of Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation.
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