Pros and cons of gene-editing crops for food

Sign up to our 10 Things You Need to Know Today newsletter

Thank you for signing up to TheWeek. You will receive a verification email shortly.

There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.

By submitting your information you agree to the Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy and are aged 16 or over.The government is pushing ahead with legislation that may pave the way for gene-edited food to be grown and sold in England.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill seeks to modify UK regulation on genetically modified organisms and marks “a major departure from EU policy”, said FarmingUK.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that Britain needed to “protect itself” by “using the technologies available to us” to safeguard food supplies as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues.

Subscribe to The WeekEscape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.

SUBSCRIBE & SAVE

Sign up for The Week’s Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

The aim is to “develop crops that are more resilient to disease, climate change and other impacts, and less reliant on pesticides”, said Politico’s London Playbook.

But the prospect of gene-edited food on British supermarket shelves has proved controversial.

1. Pro: food security amid war

Food security has been a growing concern during the conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s blockades in the invaded country are preventing the export of produce including wheat, leading to rising food prices and global shortages.

Britain is “heavily reliant” on food imports, said The Telegraph, but the gene-editing bill would “remove unnecessary barriers inherited from the EU” and boost food production in the UK. Professor Gideon Henderson, a scientific adviser to the government, told The Guardian that gene-editing could “increase food security” for the UK.

2. Con: public acceptance

The public appetite for genome-edited food is dependent on “perceptions of risks and benefits”, said a January 2022 briefing for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post).

Although the perception of risk is “often said to be lower for genome-editing than modification”, “polarised debates” on the issue may “increase public disquiet”, the briefing continued. Education was key, because “surveys and textual analyses” have found that consumers have a “low level of knowledge of genome-editing”.

3. Pro: resistance to disease

An estimated 20% to 40% of crop yield worldwide is lost to pests and diseases, according to the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI).

But “precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of crops that have a natural resistance to diseases”, then environment secretary George Eustice told The Telegraph as the bill was unveiled in May.

4. Con: traceability for consumers

A survey last year by the Food Standards Agency found that most UK consumers wanted gene-edited products to be clearly identifiable in supermarkets. But the government is planning to allow these products to be sold without such labelling.

Conservative think-tank Bright Blue has called for greater transparency in labelling and said that consumers should not be “tricked”, The Times reported. The January parliamentary briefing called for an international public registry of all commercial agricultural biotechnology products, including genome editing.

5. Pro: greater nutrition

Gene-editing could be used to create more nutritious crops, such as vitamin D-enriched tomatoes. Earlier this year, scientists announced that they had created genetically edited tomatoes that each contained as much provitamin D3 – the precursor to vitamin D – as two eggs.

Guy Poppy, a professor of ecology at the University of Southampton, told FoodNavigator that “gene-editing tomatoes to accumulate provitamin D3 at levels above recommended dietary guidelines could result in better health for many”.

6. Con: animal suffering

Critics claim the government bill is likely to pave the way for similar changes for livestock gene-editing. Although such changes would be dependent on a regulatory system to safeguard animal welfare, campaigners have warned that livestock gene-editing could reinforce the use of factory farming.

Kierra Box, of Friends of the Earth, told The Guardian that gene-editing was “genetic modification by a different name”. The technique “still focuses on altering the genetic code of plants and animals to deal with the problems caused by poor soils, the over-use of pesticides and intensive farming”, she said.

02

Another Challenge to GMOs

There’s another challenge to GMOs. That’s coming up on This Land of Ours.

The Center for Food Safety filed a legal appeal (.pdf) against the USDA in response to its genetically engineered labeling rules. The organization says those rules do not mandate clear on-package food labeling and allow unlabeled hidden GMOs to proliferate in the U.S. food marketplace.

The CFS was victorious in a 2022 district court ruling in its original USDA lawsuit, which found it unlawful to use inaccessible digital QR codes on food products instead of clear and accessible labeling. Despite the decision, the court refused to vacate USDA’s decision allowing this practice.

“USDA is hiding the presence of the majority of GMO food ingredients from American consumers with its exemption for highly refined foods despite a law passed by Congress,” says Meredith Stevenson, CFS attorney. “The Court rubber-stamped USDA’s decision to exclude highly refined foods like sodas and oils from labeling and use unfamiliar terminology, keeping consumers in the dark about their food.”

Listen to Sabrina Halvorson’s This Land Of Ours program here.

Another Challenge to GMOs

Sabrina HalvorsonNational Correspondent / AgNet Media, Inc.

Sabrina Halvorson is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, and public speaker who specializes in agriculture. She primarily reports on legislative issues and hosts The AgNet Weekly podcast. Sabrina is a native of California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley.

03

Zelenskyy signs law legalizing production of GMO products in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has signed a law regarding state control over the placement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their products on the market.

According to the information provided in the document of bill No. 5839, posted on the website of the Verkhovna Rada, the law was returned to the parliament with the signature of the head of state on September 12.

The document establishes the legal and organizational framework for state regulation of genetic engineering activities, ensuring the ecological, genetic, food, and biological security of the state, and state control over the placement of GMOs and their products on the market.

The law provides definitions for terms such as “genetically modified organism,” “genetically modified product,” “GMO product as a food product,” and introduces state registration of GMOs, among other provisions.

Before the law was passed at the second reading, amendments were made to it, which include a ban on the cultivation and import of GM corn, and a five-year ban on the cultivation of genetically modified sugar beets and rapeseed.

The document introduces comprehensive regulation of the legal and organizational foundations of genetic engineering activities through state supervision (control) over the use of genetically modified organisms and the circulation of GM products.

The bill also delineates the powers of government authorities to avoid duplication of functions in the field of GMO handling, improves the risk assessment system for GMOs concerning their potential impact on human health and the natural environment, implements European mechanisms for state registration of GMOs, enhances requirements for labeling GM products, introduces rules for traceability, strengthens government control in the field of GMO handling, and establishes responsibility for violations of legislation in this area.

As reported, the Verkhovna Rada passed this bill at the final reading during a plenary session on August 23.

Leave a Comment