Scots riled by Brexit move on gene-edited crops

Boris Johnson’s government wants to show that Brexit means it can break free of EU curbs on gene tech in farming — even if that fuels arguments for Scottish independence.

With the pile-up of Brexit bad news since the start of the year, including extra bureaucracy for business, border delays and lost rights for U.K. citizens, ministers are keen to bag some quick wins from leaving the EU.

They see one success in the potential to relax regulations on gene editing in crop plants — a technology that is strictly regulated in the EU. British ministers argue it allows more precise changes to plant genomes than traditional breeding techniques or old-style GM technology, creating new varieties that are more productive or resistant to pests.

However, that’s bringing London into conflict with Scotland’s devolved government — run by the separatist Scottish National Party.

It takes a more sceptical view of the technology and wants to maintain an EU-style ban. Eyeing a potential independence referendum, Edinburgh may also want to avoid divergence from EU rules that could complicate a future return to the bloc. If the Westminster government presses ahead with looser rules, it could provide an opening for the SNP to exploit the issue in the run up to May’s Scottish Parliament elections.

U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice moved fast after the full Brexit separation on December 31. Within days, he announced a 10-week government consultation on overturning EU regulations, in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference. The result could lead to a relaxation of the rules to permit the growing of gene-edited crops in England.

Scotland could maintain its ban on growing gene-edited plants north of the border, but the U.K. Internal Market Act — passed last year — would prevent it from banning food made from such crops grown in England.

“As an EU member, we obviously had no choice but to slavishly adopt the judgements of the ECJ, however irrational and flawed they might be,” Eustice contended. “Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence.”

New tech

Gene editing is distinct from traditional genetic modification technology, which often involves inserting DNA from one species into the genome of another. GM crops have struggled with public acceptance in Europe, despite their widespread use elsewhere. As a result, the technology is regulated so tightly that only one GM crop, an insect-resistant maize, is grown commercially in the EU.

The newer gene editing technology entails more precise and targeted changes to DNA, for example, to alter existing genes to make a plant more resistant to extreme weather or disease.

In 2018, the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg ruled that crop varieties produced by gene editing should fall under the EU’s GMO Directive. That significantly restricts their use in agriculture. The U.K. government said it disagreed with the judgement at the time and would consider overturning it post-Brexit.

Any change to the way gene editing is regulated in England will have a knock-on effect in Scotland. Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Ben Macpherson told POLITICO that Scotland’s policy on GM and gene editing “has not changed.”

“Disconcertingly, as a result of the Internal Market Act, under the current constitutional settlement, it would not be possible to prevent gene-edited products produced in England being sold in Scotland and elsewhere in the U.K., irrespective of the regulatory regimes in place in any of the devolved nations,” he said.

“Food Standards Scotland (an agency advising the government on food safety) has made it quite clear that the Internal Market Act impedes our ability to act in the interests of consumers in Scotland,” Macpherson added. “They have written to the U.K. government and have yet to receive a response.”

The Internal Market Act was introduced to much controversy at home and abroad in 2020, to prevent trade barriers between the U.K.’s four nations when EU regulatory powers returned to the U.K. at the end of the Brexit transition period.

To ensure trade continues “seamlessly” in the U.K., it stipulates that each nation must accept the marketing and sale of goods from the others, even if they don’t meet standards set by their own devolved government.

Softening the rules

The EU’s position on gene-editing technology is not necessarily fixed, however. A European Commission review of the Luxembourg court’s 2018 decision is due to be released in April, which might lead to a softening of the rules.

“This is not a closed debate at a European level at all, there are a number of capitals across the EU that are looking at this very, very closely,” said Emily Rees, director at Trade Strategies, a consultancy. “For the U.K., maybe the timing on issuing this public consultation was a bit fast out of the gate, but I don’t think it is the wrong discussion to be held.”

The EU tends to be more cautious on regulating new tech, she said. “If you consider that you have high scientific capacity, which the U.K. does, why would you not attempt to see what science can do in a number of areas, while putting in checks and balances in a regulatory environment?” Rees asked.

The U.K. government (under both Labour and Conservative) has long been more keen to press ahead with genetic technology in agriculture than Brussels — and especially Paris.

At the Oxford conference, Eustice argued that the U.K. is in a particular position to benefit because of its scientific prowess. “Our scientists make us global leaders on this issue and it is widely accepted that there is a significant difference between the techniques which edit genes already present in a species and the older technology which added ones from different species,” he said.

Even if the EU ends up going back on the the 2018 court decision and so converges with London on a softening of the rules, for the Scottish government it’s the principle that matters. With fears about the Westminster government considering lowering food standards — chlorinated chicken is the example most often cited by critics — to secure trade deals with other countries, the gene-editing issue represents a “worrying precedent,” Macpherson argued.

“[Going ahead with the consultation] sends a signal that, already, the positions of the devolved administrations are not being considered,” he said. “This consultation only applies to England but it will have consequences for the Welsh and ourselves, and it’s a worrying precedent in the general sense of the consequences of the U.K. Internal Market Act”.

A U.K. government says it will listen to the nations’ concerns. “We are keen to gather views and evidence, including from the devolved administrations, on the implications of this change in regulation,” a spokesperson said. “This consultation will inform whether and how this position is translated into law. The government is committed to proportionate, science-based regulation that protects people and the environment.”

January 2021
Andrew McDonald

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