UK organic certification body OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) has welcomed the launch of the new gene editing (GE) consultation by Defra environment secretary, George Eustice, at the Oxford Farming Conference but says unless a wide range of views are properly considered, there could be negative impacts.
It says the outcome could negatively impact on market access along with damaging the economic and ecological landscape for farming across England, and potentially the rest of the UK.
Chief executive Roger Kerr said: “We want this to be a true and fair consultation on gene editing and seek assurance from government that this will be the case, and that all voices will be heard and their views taken into account.”
In Mr Eustice’s speech, he suggested GE “could unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food”.
And on the day of his election in July 2019, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, openly advocated genetic modification (GM) and GE, and sought to reverse its ban in the UK.
“It’s concerning that GM and GE are being openly addressed by the prime minister and environment secretary as though it’s already part of agricultural policy. We worry the consultation is simply paying lip service to a deal that’s already been done. And that is simply not acceptable,” says Mr Kerr.
“A survey last autumn by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council showed that almost half (48%) of the people surveyed didn’t have faith in, and were not supportive of, new plant breeding techniques, such as GE. Why would UK agriculture want to exclude almost five out of 10 consumers from their market?”
Mr Kerr says organic already delivers profound environmental benefits, along with robust and resilient food systems that can future-proof UK food production in the post-Brexit era.
“Developing and managing organic farming rotations are already proven to grow healthier crops and rear stronger livestock, all while improving the natural environment. Defra refers to nature’s ‘slow process’, however evidence to date doesn’t show that GE will provide a quick fix.
“Research by the English Organic Forum shows, as part of ELM in England, 1m hectares of organic land could produce 2Mt less greenhouse gas emissions and more carbon sequestration worth over £40m.
“It could also reduce nitrogen surpluses in water courses by 50kt, potentially saving up to £100m in water treatment costs, as well as a 1.7kt reduction in active pesticide ingredient applications. Not to mention offering significant benefits to wildlife numbers and soil health.”
Mr Kerr says introducing GE opens up the farmed environment to potentially harmful, unintended consequences and asks that a fully researched assessment of the long-term implications is undertaken.
“Mr Eustice said GE can help deliver “breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change”.
“There’s an acute lack of peer-reviewed, independent research to back up the minister’s claims. Science has shown the climate and ecological crisis is having serious, negative effects on our food production systems. GE isn’t a responsible, proven solution.
“Additionally, it’s frustrating that GM and GE are receiving government support while organic, with its proven delivery and market recognition, isn’t currently recognised in the new Agricultural Transition Plan and future Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM).
“More government funding for research into organic, whole food system methodologies should be considered before embracing unproven technologies,” concludes Mr Kerr.
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