Anger as government plans to sell gene-edited ‘Frankenfood’ food unlabelled

Legislation to push through the development and marketing of “gene edited” crops is set to be introduced in a new Bill this week, despite opposition.

The plans will allow vendors to sell the DNA-altered crops and livestock unlabelled in Britain in the face of government polling which shows most consumers want labels on gene edited products.

A survey found that 88 per cent of Brits are opposed to the rule change to allow the sale of so-called “Frankenfood”.

Shoppers have raised concerns that without proper labeling consumers won’t know what they’re putting in their bodies.

The move has faced cold-shoulders in Scotland of Wales, with both countries vowing to reject it.

Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animal much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding which has been used for centuries to create stronger and healthier crops and livestock.

And the government said gene editing could help improve food security, producing crops that are more nutritious, climate resilient or grow with less need for pesticides and fertilizers that damage wildlife, and livestock that is resistant to disease or needs fewer antibiotics.

It could pave the way for rolling out tomato plants that are mildew-resistant to cut fungicide use or are fortified with vitamin D, developing wheat that can cope with higher temperatures, and breeding chickens that are resistant to bird flu.

Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and GM, in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.

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But following an EU ruling in 2018, it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms, a situation in which the government is now unpicking as the UK has left the bloc.

Public outcry has been joined by criticism from charities who say the Bill pushes aside the “real issues” facing the UK in favor of promoting “unpopular technologies.”

The Soil Association’s policy director Jo Lewis said: “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritizing unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.

“Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place.”

She said agroecological farming and a shift to healthy and sustainable diets was the most evidence-based solution for climate, nature and health.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will create a new category for gene edited organisms to regulate them separately from genetically modified (GM) organisms.

It will introduce new notification systems for research and marketing, and ensure information collected on precision-bred organisms is published on a public register.

The new legislation aims to speed up the development and commercialization of crops and livestock bred with genetic editing, although the government says it is taking a step-by-step approach by creating rules for plants first.

No changes will be made to the regulation of animals under the GM regime until measures are developed to safeguard animal welfare, the Environment Department (Defra) said.

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It will also allow the import of GE foods from other countries, if they meet the same regulations.

The rule changes apply to England, so GE foods can be developed and produced by English scientists and farmers, but could also be sold in Scotland and Wales.

The government has already allowed field trials in England of gene edited crops without having to go through a licensing process costing researchers £5,000 to £10,000, although scientists have to inform Defra of their tests.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “Outside the EU we are free to follow the science.

“These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilizers.

“The UK has some incredible academic centers of excellence and they are poised to lead the way.”

With additional reporting from PA

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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