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We need an urgent debate about gene editing

Sunrise Light over Green Wheat Field at SpringThis post is by Green Alliance associate Julie Hill.

Peers are moving to relax the EU-derived regulatory regime for gene editing, a sub-set of genetic modification (GM) techniques aimed at enhancing crops.  This is being done via an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, so the secretary of state for the environment can alter the legislation without going back to parliament. It is a short cut that threatens to rekindle a heated and unhelpfully polarised debate.

As someone deeply enmeshed in the GM controversy of the 1990s, my sense is that the context for the debate about genetic technologies has changed.  We have the opportunity to reform the whole purpose and practice of agriculture in the UK, or rather its constituent countries, when we are no longer subject to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Many people are even more sensitised to issues of food quality, environmental degradation and the future of farming than they were two decades ago. In this bigger picture, genetic technologies might seem, at best, marginal and, at worst, dangerous.  At the same time, the UK is attempting to make new trade deals, and access to agricultural markets is always a bone of contention.  If the deal is with the EU, negotiators will want the current precautionary rules about using GM in crops to stay in place. US counterparts will almost certainly want them relaxed.

Scrutiny is an important principle
Gene editing, it is argued, has the potential to improve crops, but in less apparently dramatic ways than previously proposed types of genetic modification.  It entails the rearrangement of genes within a plant using ‘molecular scissors’, with the aim of giving it new characteristics.  Unlike some GM techniques, it does not involve the insertion of ‘foreign’ genetic material from other species.

Its proponents argue that it is more precise, compared to previous GM of crops, and also compared to traditional plant breeding techniques, where cross pollination or irradiation leads to random variations from which promising varieties are selected.  Some argue that it is simply speeding up what is possible by traditional breeding and so it should be deregulated on that basis.

This argument underplays the original purpose of the EU’s regulatory regime.  It was built on the principle of scrutinising novelty in the environmental performance of plant and animal varieties, including by analogy to alien species imported from one country or ecosystem to another.  It sought to prevent the experience of some alien introductions, where new characteristics, in particular the ability to establish and spread, led to competition with native species and them becoming an ecological or economic pest.  As time went on, it became clear that few GM introductions were likely to present that scale of challenge, but scrutinising the potential environmental effects of genetically altered characteristics remains an important principle.

It is not yet clear to what extent gene editing avoids such hazards.  At the same time, those who argue that it is anomalous that such technologies are regulated when the products of traditional breeding are not, have a point.  One of the most dramatic changes to the British landscape was made when breeders developed winter sown wheat, and the taller, denser crops that are now widespread have been linked to the decline of birdlife on farmland.  This kind of systemic change was not anticipated in any of our regulatory arrangements, and highlights the need to consider gene technologies in their broader agricultural and environmental context.

Does gene tech have a place?
The opportunity to rethink agricultural systems, not just individual crops, must not be squandered or side-tracked. To my mind, the following considerations loom largest:

– We should grow only those crops that can be supported by our current, and future, climate. We shouldn’t be irrigating potatoes in East Anglia – we just won’t have the water.

– We have to replenish our depleted soils, or risk unproductive land in future.

– We should recycle organic nutrients more effectively, to reduce reliance on mined phosphorous and energy-hungry manufactured nitrogen.

– Biodiversity must be able to flourish in tandem with food production.

– We will need to provide lower carbon forms of protein and adapt to a lower meat diet.

– Storing water, wherever possible, should be a priority and releasing some land to flooding will relieve pressure on flood defences.

Where might gene tech fit into this set of priorities?  Some propositions might be useful, the ability to create crops with greater drought or disease resistance, for instance.  Some of these developments have been mooted since I was first involved in this debate, and the fact that they are still in development suggests they are difficult, multi-gene targets and we shouldn’t expect to see too many of them. Others could be considered tweaks to the current system rather than enabling radical change.

The right way to have the debate
Discussions about the future of agriculture are underway via the National Food Strategy and Greener UK, amongst others. These are the right places to have the debate about how to regulate gene technology, and indeed any other form of agricultural technology, ie in fora that embrace environmental considerations, rather than sidelining them and are willing to listen carefully to all interest groups.  The environmental movement needs to swiftly apply its powers of analysis, convening and consensus building to work out how to approach gene tech and ensure a holistic debate that avoids the polarised climate of the 90s.  Expending energy on spats is wasteful of the talent that is needed to build a better land use policy for the UK.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.