Is Boris Johnson getting cold feet on GMO deregulation plans?

Pro-deregulation lobby is disappointed by lack of action on GMO commercialisation. Report: Claire Robinson and Jonathan Matthews

Given Boris Johnson's gung-ho enthusiasm for "liberating" GM crops and foods from EU rules, it's interesting to note that the Westminster government's first steps following the public consultation have been more tentative than many expected.

While we've seen reams of hype from the government on the supposedly miraculous powers of gene editing, the details of what is actually going to change in terms of the GMO regulations themselves are relatively low-key so far. Defra, the government department in charge of regulating genetic engineering in agriculture, said in a statement: "We will start by looking to ease some of the burdens which currently apply to research and development for gene edited plants, while maintaining the present regulatory system for animals and other organisms."

In other words, it has backed away, for the moment at least, from deregulating gene-edited livestock animals, despite press reports that that was precisely what it was going to do, and it has said nothing about rapid commercialisation of GMOs or even planting them in English fields, outside of what will now be unregulated trials for gene-edited crops.

Maybe that's because of the public's overwhelming hostility to the government's plans for deregulation. Out of 6,440 submissions to the government's consultation, most individuals (87%) and businesses (64%) said that gene-edited organisms pose a greater risk than naturally bred organisms. And most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported continuing to regulate the products of gene editing as GMOs.

The Westminster government also has the problem of other parts of the UK making it crystal clear that they have no intention of following England’s unilateral deregulatory moves. After all, how would the UK’s internal market – already under strain post-Brexit – operate with different parts of the country pursuing completely opposed policies? Never mind what might happen to trade with the EU, with which Northern Ireland is effectively in a single market for goods, and with other countries with divergent regulatory regimes.

Disappointment of pro-deregulation lobby

Whatever the government’s declared direction of travel, the majority who favour precaution on genetic engineering in agriculture can take some encouragement from the disappointment of England's pro-deregulation lobby in the face of the government'sslowness to act.

The Roslin Institute, which has long pioneered the cloning and genetic engineering of animals, put out a press release in which Professor Helen Sang, while welcoming the developments announced by Defra, admitted, “We are disappointed that currently the proposals do not include development of regulations relating to applying genome editing in farmed animals in parallel to crops.”

Even those involved in the genetic engineering of crops appeared underwhelmed. The John Innes Centre (JIC) at Norwich Research Park has long been a major player in the development of GMO plants,. Its director, Professor Dale Sanders, was unimpressed by the government's lack of instant commitment to GMO commercialisation. He said, “While Defra’s announcement is a step forward for crop trials, it is disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development. The benefits of these technologies will only be realised if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers. It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat.”

Sanders added, “We need fundamental change to the way we regulate crops produced by genetic technologies if we’re going to make the most of the opportunities that recent advances in genetics have given us. We call on the government to progress the plans to bring these products to market as a matter of urgency. We now have an opportunity to streamline the process and looking ahead we should be regulating crops based on the characteristics they possess rather than how they are produced.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group leader at the Earlham Institute, also at the Norwich Research Park. She agreed that the government's announcement "does not go far or fast enough", saying: "The government must bring forward modern, progressive and proportionate regulations to allow gene edited products to be brought to market and provide consumer confidence. The UK is already home to some of the best plant scientists in the world. Removing some of the barriers for developing gene-edited crops will help UK scientists progress their research - but continuing to prevent the commercial application of their research risks starving plant science of the critical investment needed."

Reality check

Neither Sanders nor Patron address the fact that permissive regulatory regimes for GMOs already exist in several countries, including Canada, the US, and Argentina. And vast sums of public and industry money have been poured into GMO research and development at the JIC and other UK institutes, such as Rothamsted. If these institutes came up with any genuinely useful products, they would surely be able to commercialise them in one of these countries. But we have seen no such product and no such initiative beyond the projected release to US home gardeners of a GMO tomato developed at the John Innes Centre that has failed to attract the commercial interest of any of the big biotech firms because it is so ultra-niche.

All aboard the gravy train

If this suggests that the GMO food venture is far less promising than its promoters would have us believe, it still remains a potential gravy train when it comes to attracting funding if the climate for investment appears right. This was seen in the early days of GM crop development when the John Innes Centre and its Sainsbury Laboratory landed multi-million pound deals with the biotech industry.

In 1998, for instance, the JIC announced 50 million pounds of investment by Syngenta. This led to the construction of a Syngenta laboratory to aid the planned cooperation of JIC scientists with up to 40 Syngenta colleagues.

Around the same time the then acting director of the JIC warned that any serious slowdown in GM crop acceptance “would be very, very serious for us”, as well as for the Norwich Research Park. And so it proved when the food industry made it clear they wouldn’t be including GM ingredients, which GM regulations required them to label, in their products because of retailer and consumer opposition.

Within just three years of what had been intended to be an 11-year collaboration, Syngenta pulled out of the JIC deal, abandoning their only recently constructed Syngenta lab and ending their involvement with the JIC’s Sainsbury Laboratory. "The frustration for us is this was a new kind of relationship that looked like setting an exciting precedent," the JIC’s spokesperson said at the time.

And it is this model, of getting publicly funded research into the private sector by attracting substantial investment, that deregulation is intended to revive.

Why the hesitancy?

So why the hesitancy, given that Boris Johnson had publicly stated at the very outset of his premiership that he saw the UK’s “extraordinary” bioscience sector as an area of UK competitive advantage that he only needed to unleash? Especially when he and his government have been so keen to flag up GM deregulation as a policy gain from Britain’s split from the EU.

The answer may lie in the alarms about deregulation that are being sounded by the agriculture sector. While Boris Johnson has often appeared surprisingly indifferent to the market impact of his policies, the same cannot be said for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), whose members have been having to cope with the market disruptions that have already resulted from his government’s inept handling of Brexit and its consequences, and who are extremely wary of the impact of the new trade deals being struck.  

And although the NFU, which is best understood as an English agribusiness lobby rather than as representative of UK farmers as a whole, has long been ardently pro-GMO, it recognises that the financial interests of many of its members are not one and the same as those of the bioscience institutes desperate to entice in the extra funding and commercial opportunities held out by deregulation.

That’s why in its response to Defra’s public consultation, the NFU, as well as heartily endorsing all the silver-bullet fixes for industrial agriculture promised by gene editing, vigorously flagged up the risks to trade. The NFU’s vice-president, Tom Bradshaw, emphasised to Farmers Weekly that “it was ‘vital’ that the UK is still able to trade with the EU and that the internal UK market remains functional should England take a different approach to the devolved regions”.

The NFU’s message to Defra in its response could not have been clearer. Care and diplomacy were needed to negotiate regulatory changes, as a part of a “long game” and to avoid unintended market consequences. In particular, “It is vital that the UK’s position does not harm trade and market access for its agricultural goods.”

Despite the current UK government not being known for either “care” or “diplomacy”, particularly in its dealings with the devolved regions and the European Union, Defra does appear to have heeded the NFU’s warning not to rush deregulation. In doing so, they are for once in accord with their predecessors when it comes to policy making. “It’s simple,” a civil servant at Defra once told the Guardian columnist George Monbiot: “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU.”

Next step

The fact the UK government seems to have been persuaded, for the moment at least, to play it carefully is no cause for complacency. That’s because the intent of the NFU, just as much as the rest of the GMO lobby, is still to achieve full deregulation in the longer term, and to do it in such a way as to encourage as many other governments as possible to proceed along the same path.

As a next step in the UK government's plans, it will lay down a statutory instrument on GMO trials by the end of the year, which “will make research and development easier for plants that have been produced by genetic technologies where the resulting genetic changes could have been developed using traditional breeding methods”.

The government has so far failed to define changes that “could have been developed using traditional breeding methods”. But it seems likely that they will have to wilfully ignore the shortcomings of the gene editing process in order to force the conclusion that gene editing is no different from conventional breeding.

As a real-life example, it is possible to fool ourselves that the gene-edited hornless cattle developed by Recombinetics are just like naturally bred hornless cattle – unless we consider the process used to develop the cattle. In which case, just as the US FDA did, we would discover that the gene-edited cattle contained antibiotic resistance genes.

Manipulating the definition of a GMO

After the statutory instrument is laid down, the government intends to manipulate the definition of a GMO to suit its deregulatory agenda. It will "review the regulatory definitions of a GMO to exclude certain organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. We will also consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and transparently, considering consumer choice and traceability. This will be followed by a review of our approach to GMO regulation more broadly."

GMWatch will be keeping a close eye on these developments. We fully expect the government to disregard the facts and evidence on gene editing – as well as the weight of public opinion – in pursuit of its commercial goals. But it remains to be seen just how smoothly it is able to carry out its plans, given public resistance, the inherent problems of the technology, and the agriculture lobby's advice to proceed with care and diplomacy.

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