Will Brexit see GM safeguards dead in the ditch?

With a new Prime Minister and a ‘die in the ditch’ Brexit looming there are real concerns for the UK farming sector and organic in particular. A recent study has suggested a no deal Brexit would put more than half of UK farms out of business due to tariffs and the end of Basic Payment by 2022. The other area of concern for the organic sector in particular is the enthusiasm for GM by our new Prime Minister, who on day one of his premiership stated: “Let’s liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules. Let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”. What would such an approach mean for organic farmers, farming and food in the UK?

Organic farming bodies both nationally and internationally have long stated that there is no place for GM in organic food and farming. Regardless of Brexit the UK organic sector’s stance would not change. The EU Withdrawal Act 2018 states that the relevant EU regulations will be transferred into UK law, giving some responsibilities currently held by EU institutions to the UK and some to the devolved nations which have so far pursued policies sceptical of GM. With Johnson’s enthusiasm we can anticipate early moves to water down GM regulations in England and perhaps across the whole UK.

Currently the EU regulations on GM in food and farming are regarded by some potential partners as a non-tariff barrier to trade. There is a risk that any post-Brexit tradedeal could become a race to the bottom, lowering food standards and removing the requirement to label GM food for human consumption.

Weakened GM regulations anywhere in the UK could have major impacts on organic farming. Depending on which GM crops are approved and/or grown, risks include contamination of seed or feed stocks, cross-pollination of crops and contamination of land. In the 2000’s Defra consulted on a number of issues including separation distances between GM and non-GM crops; who would be responsible and take liability for any contamination; and what ‘contamination’ actually means, including what level of GM
presence constitutes contamination. The project was quietly shelved without any progress on what turned out to be a fiendishly difficult and politically sensitive subject. Now, we could be facing these challenges for real, even though there is no public desire or need for GM. The Food Standards Agency (FSA)’s Biannual Public Attitudes Tracker consistently shows that concern over GM has not diminished. A separate poll by Bright Blue found in April 2017 that even 63% of Conservative voters support a ban on GM crops.

Labelling of products containing GMOs is also a major issue, and one over which the EU (and currently the UK) and the US differ. Labelling is heavily supported, with a GfK NOP poll finding that 89% of people in the UK wanted GM products to be clearly labelled and 72% were willing to pay extra for non-GM food. US consumers, meanwhile, are still largely in the dark and the unlabelled inclusion of GM soya, maize (particularly as high fructose corn syrup) and oil seed rape (known as canola in the US) is almost universal in non-organic processed foods. Any deal to sell UK products into the EU would need to abide by the EU’s GM regulations but a trade deal with the US could create pressure inthe opposite direction. Iconic products like Kellogg’s cornflakes are sold in a GM version across the US but made without GM ingredients for the EU market. Without GM labels the US recipe could quickly flood the UK market and consumers would lose their right to make informed choices.

To prevent potentially irreversible damage to the UK organic sector as well as our communities and ecosystems we need a robust and transparent process for authorising the use of GMOs. This process must prevent the release of any genetically engineered material into the environment without a rigorous and independent, case by case risk assessment. It must also recognise the validity of social, economic and ethical impacts of the use of GM in food and farming.

To protect farmers’ right to choose, and our devolved nations’ right to determine their own farming policy, we need effective measures to prevent contamination of non-GM crops, food and feed with GM material of any kind. This includes operating an effective ‘polluter pays’ liability regime that will ensure fair compensation for UK farmers, growers and any other business impacted by contamination with GM material of any kind.

To protect consumers’ right to make informed choices we must retain our GM labels and extend them to cover products from GM-fed animals.

Bruce Pearce (ORC) & Liz O’Neill (GM Freeze)

This article featured as the Editorial for ORC Bulletin 129. For more information on the ORC Bulletin click here

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