We need to talk about the Genetic Technology (Precision-Breeding) Bill

By Adrian Ely

On Monday (31 October), the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill came back to the Commons chamber for its third reading.  As Boris Johnson put it, the bill aims to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules”. In Conservative circles, it’s widely seen as a key opportunity arising from Brexit.  

But deregulating biotechnologies can have profound effects on a country’s social and environmental systems. And it can lock us in to a particular approach to new technologies that last for decades to come.  My research shows that changes in biotechnology regulation should be made carefully, and be informed by broader and more considered societal debate around the emerging biotechnologies that could transform our lives. 

Historic Roots

The UK’s current approach to regulating biotechnologies can be traced directly to the controversy that erupted around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the late 1990s.

Before this, the UK (like many countries at the time) had been designing GMO regulations based largely on an assessment of the physical risks that might arise from recombinant DNA techniques. That approach provided no requirement for labelling of GM foods. 

In the late 1990s, however, the mad cow disease epidemic had left the UK confronting a crisis of confidence in science, just when journalists began taking an interest in GM foods.  This led to an acrimonious public debate, and many consumers adopting a hostile, highly sceptical stance towards GMOs and the science that supported it. This was one of the drivers of the development of an EU-wide requirement for stringent risk assessment, labelling and traceability of GM foods (based on the process through which they had been developed).  

In adopting this new process-based approach to regulation, the UK and other EU countries were effectively moving from interpreting the risks from biotechnology primarily as physical risks to health or the environment, to an approach that saw biotechnologies as posing broader social and/or political risks as well. 

In the UK, the Blair government’s pivot towards managing these broader social risks of GM foods resulted in an unprecedented public engagement exercise entitled “GM Nation?” to better-understand public attitudes.

Brexit’s legacy

In a landmark decision in 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that this process-based approach also referred to newer techniques of gene editing (GE), even though these hadn’t existed when the initial Directives had been drafted decades earlier.  This decision provided little opportunity for broad societal debate in the EU around opportunities and concerns raised by this new biotechnology.

But in January 2021, just a week after the end of the transition period that followed the UK’s departure from the EU, Defra launched a public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies in England.  

The Food Standards Agency commissioned research on consumer attitudes towards GM and GE, and numerous other bodies including the Regulatory Horizons Council, the Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform and BEIS consulted on issues related to biotechnology regulation.

Future-proofing regulation?

The government’s proposed approach (in the Bill) unfortunately ignores much of this work.

Most of the responses to the consultation suggested that the government should regulate GE in the same way as GM. The FSA found that the majority of those surveyed wanted GE foods to be labelled. But the Bill includes no such requirement. Instead, it creates a new category of “precision-bred organisms” and lays out various general procedures, the details of which are to be determined by future regulations or at the discretion of the Secretary of State.  Viewed charitably, this might be seen as “enabling legislation” that can be flexible and adapt (through statutory instruments) as technologies evolve.  Less charitably, it might be seen as a fudge.

Aside from technologies, public attitudes are also subject to change, and the Bill needs to be able to adapt to these as well. In the USA, GMOs were not initially labelled, but after a series of state-level campaigns the country adopted a process-based labelling regime that came into force this year.  

What the muted response means

In the context of chaos in Westminster and the government’s broader “attack on nature”, public protest against unlabelled GE are relatively muted, despite a slew of concerns raised by civil society organisations.

However, the government’s consultations to date give little indication about whether this is likely to continue, once GE foods start arriving on our shelves.  

Deeper societal debate around labelling could inform proportionate decisions about rules for labelling, traceability and liability.  Taking the time to consider these issues is also vital for the devolved administrations like Scotland,where Mairi McAllan MSP, Minister for Environment and Land Reform, voiced her concern in the summer.

Some of the issues critics have raised may make it to the debating chamber in the coming days. But they deserve to be discussed more widely.  The opportunity for broad societal debate around these new technologies should be grasped – we will be living with the implications for decades.

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