Great Britain seeks to deregulate genetic engineering

- While the UK was still a member of the EU, the British government supported agricultural genetic engineering to the extent possible. After the completion of Brexit, it is now free to restructure its genetic engineering laws. And apparently it’s not losing any time in doing so.

As a first step on the way to new genetic engineering laws the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has begun a public consultation with the aim of deregulating new genetic engineering methods. Through its “flawed” judgment in 2018 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) “blocked the potential of this method” and “stifled scientific progress,” said the UK Environment Secretary George Eustice. Now the government is free to “make political decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation”. Britons may comment on the Department’s plan until 17th March. It seeks to exclude from genetic engineering laws all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that could also have been obtained through traditional breeding, irrespective of whether these are new or old genetic engineering methods. Based on an evaluation of the responses modifications to the laws can be anticipated within one to two years, according to the consultation text.

Will British genetic engineering law be done away with entirely and “old” genetic engineering deregulated as well?

It also includes a second part in which DEFRA takes a more comprehensive look at genetic engineering law, which it also seeks to revise entirely after 30 years. The questions are directed at whether there is even a need for genetic engineering regulations as such, or whether the other food laws suffice to ensure the safety of genetically modified food.

“It is clear that the government is using this consultation to initiate a process of re-evaluating all of its provisions concerning old and new genetic engineering methods,” writes Pat Thomas, Director of the Organisation BeyondGM. Since in the foreseeable future there will be no plants and animals produced with new genetic engineering methods, “if it wishes to cultivate genetically modified plants, the government will consider whether it also wants to deregulate old-style GMOs”.

England against the rest of the UK

“There is no doubt that the government in Westminster is weighing the deregulation of all GMOs,” writes Claire Robinson, editor in chief of the platform GMWatch. She assumes that the government will attempt to quickly deregulate new genetic engineering and then start a large-scale debate on genetic engineering.

In fact, one is already underway. In 2015, according to the EU regulations then in effect Scotland, Wales and Northern Island opted for prohibitions on genetic engineering cultivation and now see London’s plans as an attack on their anti-genetic engineering position. Scotland might soon be “forced to accept the marketing, sale and free trade” in genetically modified food, warned the government there.

DEFRA Consultation Hub: The regulation of genetic technologies (07 January 2021)

DEFRA: The regulation of genetic technologies. A public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies (January 2021)

GMWatch: UK: Public consultation on de-regulating gene editing launched (07 January 2021)

GMWatch: Brexit: Scotland may be "forced" to sell GM food if England changes law (08 January 2021)

The Grocer: Gene editing debate represents first test of UK divergence from EU rules (08 January 2021)

Brexit: Deregulated genetic engineering in the UK? (05 August 2020)

Boris Johnson on a path to genetic engineering (21 October 2020)