Opposition MPs demand clarity over gene-editing proposals

Opposition MPs have accused the government of a lack of detail and clarity over its plans to change UK legislation to allow gene-edited crops to be grown and sold in England.

MPs expressed their concerns during the progress of the bill through its third reading in the House of Commons on Monday 31 October and it will now be debated in the House of Lords.

See also: Public wants wider public debate on gene editing in livestock

The government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill aims to update the regulation of precision breed organisms in England.

The bill seeks to enable the use of technologies, including gene editing, to tackle the pressing issues of food security and climate change.

Defra says the use of gene-editing technology could unlock opportunities to develop higher yielding crops that are more resilient against disease and the effects of climate change, such as drought and flooding.

Defra also says the technology could allow farmers to become less reliant on pesticides.

During the debate in parliament, MPs voiced support for Defra’s science-based approach to new technologies, but they also raised concerns about a perceived lack of detail within the proposed legislation.

Bill amendments

Shadow farm minister and Labour MP David Zeichner described the bill as “vague and thin” and called for details of how the technology would be adequately regulated.

He said: “We must recognise that any new technology also carries risks: risks of unintended consequences; risks of technology being misused; and risks of commercial pressure being exerted in ways that might not be for the benefit of the wider public.”

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron added: “We strongly support the principle underlying the bill, but we strongly urge the government to consider the amendments… to improve regulation, safety and animal welfare, and protect farmers from the damage that could be done to them if they end up being the pawns of multinational global enterprises.”

Food safety

But Defra farm minister Mark Spencer said the Food Standards Agency would have strict measures in place to ensure produce will only go on sale “if it is judged to present no risk to health, does not mislead consumers, and does not have lower nutritional value than its traditionally bred counterparts”.

Mr Spencer added: “There are many new technologies out there that we want to embrace and give the opportunity to come forward, albeit in a regulated format so that we can have confidence in our food systems, and that is the exact process that the bill seeks to correct.”

Speaking outside of the debate, Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM, said there were “clear markers” for where the bill required amendments in the House of Lords.

“The concerns raised included the use of meaningless and unclear language throughout the bill, its extremely broad scope, which is not limited to agricultural plants and animals, concerns that it will negatively impact non-GMO and organic businesses and has failed to take into account the views of devolved nations and, crucially, a growing awareness that the bill is not really a bill for farmers or farming or food but for industry and narrow vested interests.”