Gene-Editing Food Plans for England are GM ‘Sleight of Hand’ Say Critics

Gene-editing bill to return for second reading in UK Parliament on Wednesday
By Rachel Hannah
Rachel Hannah
Rachel Hannah
June 14, 2022 Updated: June 17, 2022

Hoping to fend off concerns about eating ‘gene-edited’ food, the British government claims the process it plans to legalise is different to GM—or genetic modification. With supporters claiming it will be good for planet, people, and pockets, Westminster insists “editing” genes is safe and, unlike GM, won’t share genetic material across species.

But as the bill to introduce the technique returns for its second reading in Parliament on Wednesday, the distinction has been branded a ‘conceptual sleight of hand’ with some leading scientists unconvinced it is the panacea for twenty-first century ills.

“There’s a little bit of conceptual sleight of hand to say it’s not any form of GM or genetic modification,” Professor Tim Benton, a biologist with independent policy institute Chatham House, told The Epoch Times.

While the National Farmers Union has welcomed the proposals, supermarkets have not yet said whether they will carry gene-edited plants, crops or animal products. But Benton thinks that, as they enter the supply chain, some will.

With the plans not applying automatically to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, could it benefit the Englishman or woman’s purse? Or anyone’s?

‘A Small Fraction of Purchase Price’

Benton does not seem optimistic.

“What people in most parts of the world eat is very highly processed and the ingredients that might go into processed ready meals are a very small fraction of the purchase price. If you ended up adding or reducing 20 percent from the starch in a microwaveable curry it’s going to be fractions of fractions of a pence.”

Could it be good for the planet? Claire Robinson from the not-for-profit outfit GM Watch rejects the suggestion. Robinson does not distinguish between genetic modification and gene editing either.

Epoch Times Photo
Animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam feeds two hornless offspring of a gene-modified bull and a horned control cow, at the university’s farm in Davis, California, on Sept. 4, 2019. (Juliette Michel/AFP via Getty Images)

She told The Epoch Times that GM crops have created “superweeds” and says “they’ve resulted in massive increases in herbide use.” She gives the example of a crop called BT cotton which had the gene from a bacterium in the soil added to its DNA. The cotton has been grown in India but was banned by one of Africa’s main cotton producers, Burkina Faso, six years ago.

“The hype around this cotton was it would mean you didn’t need to spray insecticides any longer. It was supposed to be a great boon for the environment and farmers’ health.

“But the actual crop is an insecticide. It expresses it in every cell. It’s designed to kill insects,” Robinson adds, “but after a short while of being exposed to this stuff they just get resistant and farmers have had to go back to spraying really serious cocktails of chemicals.” That has had drastic implications for farmers’ own health, she maintains.

Benton points out it has been possible to import genetically-modified corn for animal feed to the UK for some time and people have not seemed to mind. But, he suggests, that could be down to a lack of knowledge.

We Are What We Eat

For Robinson, what goes in animal feed is important because, as the old adage goes, some research suggests we are what we eat. “Many studies show GM DNA survives digestion,” she says. “Not all do—but enough.”

But does that matter? Robinson thinks it does, describing one animal-feeding study on pigs in the United States, half of which were fed GM soy and maize.

“They found the GM-fed ones had more cases of severe stomach inflammation and, mysteriously, larger uteruses,” she tells The Epoch Times. She says all the pigs were allowed to go into the food supply.

But could gene-edited foods help ordinary people? Author John Harrison, a grower in north-west Wales, who penned Vegetable Growing Month by Month and Dig for Victory, is supportive of it in plants and crops. But he tells The Epoch Times he is not happy to see the process controlled by big corporations and says he believes the patents system the government is proposing is “terrible.”

Epoch Times Photo
Giorgio Fidenato stands on 350 square meters (just shy of an acre) of nearly mature corn genetically altered to resist pesticides, near Pordenone, northern Italy, on Aug. 8, 2010. One day earlier, the corn had been trampled to the ground by 70 anti-GMO activists wearing chemical warfare suits. (Paolo Giovannini/AP Photo)

He offers a hypothesis. “Let’s say we produce a gene-edited carrot. It’s more nutritious. It grows better. It’s resistant to everything. And then we discover it’s got a problem. What will happen?” Harrison says he worries that if a company made a significant investment it might forge ahead anyway. He would prefer the government to fund research directly at universities and dedicated centres then give the technology away.

Transparency

Both Robinson and Benton say transparency in developing and selling gene-edited foods should be paramount. “It’s about scientific rigour,” Robinson emphasises. She wants all results published and peer-reviewed, molecular profile analyses made public, and the foods labelled for consumers.

But despite opposition, the government is so far refusing to label them.

Benton says the success of gene-edited food will depend on who controls the narrative. He remembers GM Flavr Savr tomatoes back in the 90s which could be stored for longer. “They were taken off the shelves when public opinion turned against them.”

Says Benton, “GM was completely oversold in the past as the answer to everything, and my worry this time round is the gene editing is being oversold as the answer to everything, and I don’t think it is.”

Robinson agrees about the narrative. “It bothers me daily.” There are already natural blight-resistant crops out there, she says, like the Sarpo potato from Hungary, a spud with several varieties. “Small plant breeders are doing fantastic work producing them. I buy them. I’ve grown them. Unfortunately, the people with the real solutions do not have big money and power behind them.”

Epoch Times Photo
A protester tears up a genetically modified (GM) oil seed rape plant at a demonstration against genetically modified crops at a farm in Long Marsden in Warwickshire, England, on March 9, 2002. (Sion Touhig/Getty Images)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) says gene editing poses no greater risk to the environment or human health than their traditionally bred counterparts. It says the process could help develop crops that are more nutritious, less reliant on pesticides, and more resilient to climate change.

It also says those doing the research will have to notify the department. It stresses its approach is informed by advice from independent scientific advisers about risk. It says its plans not to label such foods is consistent with its regulatory regime for novel foods, also based on scientific advice about risk.

DEFRA further says it is developing public registers so that information about the food and feed products will be available in the public domain.

DEFRA declined to provide a specific comment for this article when contacted by The Epoch Times.