Dangerous changes, movements of hope
The new Executive Director of GM Freeze, Leonie Nimmo, reflects on a changing environment for GM campaigning, and the role of GM Freeze and our supporters in shaping a fair and sustainable future
The passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act in March was a seismic shift in the UK’s legislative landscape, rebranding some forms of genetically modified organisms as ‘gene edited’ and potentially removing the safeguards we expect with their development and release. It comes at a time of increasing global demand for technology to provide solutions to human-made problems, not least the existential threat of climate change.
My predecessor at GM Freeze, Liz O’Neill, worked tirelessly on the Act and other things to protect our food and farming system from the unregulated roll-out of genetically modified organisms: from labelling campaigns and responding to field trial applications to lobbying parliament and co-ordinating the UK movement against GMOs.
The Act significantly changes the operating environment, which could impact all this work and more. It feels like an important time to take stock and look to the future.
I have recently been asked whether I think GM technology is inherently dangerous/bad, or whether the only real problem is the increasing corporate power that patents facilitate. It’s an interesting and valid question.
These days we are told that the science is more sophisticated than back when genetic modification was primarily about herbicide-resistant and insecticide-producing crops, which have locked farmers into production systems that escalate chemical use. The catastrophic consequences of this are no more evident than in India, where the roll-out of GM cotton has been linked to the suicides of 400,000 farmers, many of whom have drunk the very chemicals intended for use on the land.
My instinct tells me that artificial modification of genes in relation to the food system is dangerous per se, because it is very important that we don’t undermine the genetic integrity of seeds (and by extension the future of life on this planet). It would be ridiculous, however, to arrive at the conclusion that genetic manipulation of any kind is ‘bad’, because science is not sentient. But by the same measure, neither is a particular type of genetic modification, per se, ‘good’. And regardless of this, I am certain that the deregulation of GM is dangerous. Opposing this will continue to be a key priority for GM Freeze.
With the advent of so-called gene editing, designed changes can be made to the pre-existing genetic material (albeit forced by external stimuli). According to legislators, there is a distinction between this and former types of genetic modification which is so significant that it should mean the removal of regulatory frameworks, safety regimes, traceability systems and labelling requirements.
This distinction is a political construct, and one that encourages us to believe that, whilst the older GMOs might be problematic, the newer ones are not. This is scientifically incorrect and ethically highly contentious. All diseases and genetic mutations involve changing the pre-existing genome. These changes will often deliver unpredictable results, some of which can become highly infectious, such as with antibiotic resistance or zoonotic diseases.
There are many risks, and we need strong regulatory frameworks with proper safeguards in place around all genetic modification processes. But laboratory experiments alone cannot adequately inform us of the risks, because they do not extend beyond laboratories and into ecosystems. We also need to turn to farmers, and fields, and listen to what informed and engaged producers are saying.
I believe that the food sovereignty movement is one of the most important social movements of our time. Originating in the primarily agricultural global South, it has now spread into the industrialised North, with an unapologetic, coherent demand for self-determination in food production and consumption. It is spearheaded by La Via Campesina – the worldwide movement of peasant producers – which categorically rejects genetically modified organisms, stating that they endanger farmers’ rights to seeds, as guaranteed by the 2018 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants.
Our members the Landworkers’ Alliance, who are also members of La Via Campesina, have a vision of a regenerative food system that does not compromise the ability of others around the world, or future generations, to provide for themselves. It’s a vision I share, and hope that GM Freeze will work to make a reality.
I joined GM Freeze from the Conflict and Environment Observatory, where I had been researching the converging impacts of climate change, conflict and environmental degradation. I became concerned that GM might increasingly be touted as a solution to climate change, and that finance for climate change adaptation will facilitate the roll-out of genetically manipulated crops in areas where dependence on international markets has already impoverished farmers. The doubling of agribusiness delegates at the climate Conference of Parties (COP) between 2021 and 2022, alongside the emerging discourse about ‘climate-smart’ agriculture, could be worrying signs. Climate resilience potential featured prominently in the UK government’s arguments in support of the Genetic Technology Act.
According to the UN, we face a triple planetary crisis, of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Genetic manipulation threatens to aggravate the last two whilst it is promoted as a techno-fix to the first. Commercial cultivation of GM crops inevitably leads to the contamination of landraces that have been adapted to local conditions. Crops that are developed in a lab and distributed globally create monocultures that are not adapted to local conditions, and cannot be used in the future to breed locally-appropriate varieties. We need to be aware of the dangers that GM crops present to landraces, and our ability to adapt to the changes that are coming.
In the UK I believe we have a particular responsibility to challenge the concept of ‘gene editing’ as a climate change solution. On the one hand, technology developed here, or with capital accumulated here, will be exported. On the other, we have a relatively stable and representative political system, which has effectively pushed back against GM cultivation to date. As GM Freeze we represent a crucial voice of civil society; a voice that could echo beyond our island.
In the UK, the outdoor cultivation of GM crops has, to date, been restricted to field trials. Similar restrictions in Europe have protected citizens, producers and ecosystems from the commercial roll-out of GM crops. There are many to whom we owe thanks for this situation, from the activists of the 1990s, to sensible legislators, to consumers, to European beekeepers and beyond. As the supporters and members of GM Freeze, you have played your part in ensuring that in the UK field trials and legislation have been met with informed resistance; pushing back on corporate power, political manipulation and dangerous scientific experimentation.
The Orwellian-named Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, and parallel legislative processes underway in Europe, are poised to change everything. Where breeding occurs in a lab, and legislation rests on a theoretical, unscientific “could have”, our genetic resources – our seed heritage – are at risk. We need to act now to ensure that the secondary legislation, which will come on the heels of the Act, is as robust as possible.
Building an inclusive movement
It’s not just about seeds: much of the Act applies to animals as well. The RSPCA has picked up on the significance of this, noting that genetically altered animals are now used in almost 70% of all scientific procedures in the UK. It has raised concerns that the Act could mean a huge step backwards in animal welfare – whether farm animals, pets, or wild species.
Those of us concerned about genetic manipulation are a broad church. We include animal welfare advocates, concerned consumers, the slow food movement, organic farmers, beekeepers, wholefood distributors and the food sovereignty movement. Over the coming months and years I look forward to working with you to amplify our collective demands for a safe, fair and sustainable food system, for people and biodiversity, and a world where animals are treated with respect.
The fight against unlabelled and inadequately safety tested genetically altered life forms has not stopped with the passing of the Genetic Technology Act, it has entered a new phase. And we need to join together to be louder and stronger than ever before.
- Dr. Vandana Shiva, speaking alongside Liz O’Neill at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2023.
- Beyond this broad description of gene editing, it is difficult to come up with a statement that is universally true. Contested issues include whether or not the change could have been produced using conventional breeding, whether genetic material from another species remains present in the genetically altered organism, and whether unintended changes present risks and should therefore be monitored. The UK government’s position is in conflict with a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling, which found that gene editing was genetic engineering, and that gene edited crops and animals are genetically modified organisms.
- Albeit one that is becoming less stable and representative, not least through the passing of a number of Acts of parliament under the current Conservative government.
- The government’s briefing on the Act states that gene editing technologies produce “traits that can also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes.” As noted above, this is a highly contested issue, not least by the European Court of Justice. See also this briefing by Organic Farmers & Growers.