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Can lessons from the passage of the Genetic Technology Act help us to raise a louder collective voice?

Posted 17th July 2023 in Longer stories from GM Freeze

Liz O’Neill, Director of GM Freeze, reflects on the recent passage of the Genetic Technology Act. What lessons should we learn to help civil society push for more collaborative, effective, and accountable law making in the future?

Graphic illustrating threats to GM safeguards

Genetic Engineering (regardless of branding) has always been controversial subject and the passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act was no exception. However, as GM Freeze Director Liz O’Neill explains, concerns about the new law extend far beyond its focus on removing safeguards on the manipulation of plant and animal DNA.

The Genetic Technology Act creates a new class of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Styled as “precision bred organisms”, these GMOs will be released without any requirement for independent risk assessment, anti-contamination measures or labelling on foodstuffs. Already out of step with public opinion, the problems quickly escalate when you discover that the Act’s definition of “precision breeding” is legally vague, highly contested and will be policed by an Advisory Committee of which every member holds potential or actual conflicts of interest with the biotechnology industry, the main financial beneficiaries of the changes in the law.

The Genetic Technology Act only applies directly in England and little heed was paid to the decisions by both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd to withhold legislative consent. The high profile given to the fate of sausages in the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework demonstrate the complexity of managing divergence within the UK food chain and the influence of the Internal Markets Act will only add to the confusion.

Poor understanding (or willful ignoring?) of the true impacts of the proposed new legislation was one of many reasons why the Regulatory Policy Committee found the Government’s Impact Assessment for this bill “not fit for purpose”. It’s obvious to most people that removing longstanding safeguards will impact the entire food and farming sector but all of Defra’s forecasts and calculations focused on just 75 seed breeders – some 0.03% of the estimated number of businesses engaged in farming or food and drink manufacturing in the UK.

Most provisions in the Genetic Technology Act won’t come into effect for several years because so much of the detail has been left to secondary legislation. There’s also still a chance for achieving one of our key demands as the Food Standards Agency’s independent board recently chose not to rule out some form of labelling for “precision bred food and feed”.

With opinion polls strongly suggesting a change of government at the next General Election,  it is tempting to conclude that there is little incentive for the current administration to concern itself with how the changes will work on the ground. Look a little more closely and you might wonder if their decision to push ahead with legislative changes that had been overwhelming rejected in Defra’s own public consultation was always really about sending signals. A signal to business investors that the Government has their back when it comes to patented technologies. A signal to the UK’s devolved nations that the they won’t be ‘getting their own countries back’ anytime soon. And a signal to civil society that we should know our place.

We do, of course, absolutely know where are place should be: at the heart of public policy development! The Civil Society Alliance gives us a louder collective voice and GM Freeze is keen to play our part by sharing what we have learnt from fighting a deeply flawed – and hugely unpopular – bill. We didn’t win much but we have a learnt a huge amount along the way and want to put that experience to work as an ally of others defending public rights, standards and protections in any field. Please get in touch to discuss how we might be able to support your work by sharing some of the lessons we’ve learnt the hard way.

Written for and first published by the Civil Society Alliance, July 2023.