A new analysis by A Bigger Conversation suggests that, in its haste to deregulate agricultural gene technologies, the UK government is “choosing to get it wrong” by ignoring expertise from all sides.

The analysis, carried out by A Bigger Conversation, highlights multiple themes missed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) official analysis of responses to its 2021 public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies. It shows that Defra’s analysis was inadequate and divisive and failed to take account of public opinion.

The Defra public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies was launched in January 2021 and the department’s report on its findings followed in September. At the same time the government announced that it would immediately begin a process of deregulating gene editing in England by:

  • Use existing powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to change the law in order to make applications for field trials for plants that have been produced by new genetic technologies simpler and less costly.
  • Amend the current definition of a GMO in English law so that organisms produced by new genetic technologies are not classed as GMOs.
  • Take a longer-term review of how the UK regulates all types of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, with a view to further deregulation.

But a closer look at the data in Defra’s official analysis shows that the vast majority of those who responded expressed a preference for continued regulation of gene editing. This fact, alongside a consultation process that was fraught with problems and government reporting that was inadequate, prompted A Bigger Conversation to undertake its own analysis of consultation responses.

A failure to understand

The newly published analysis, Filling in the Blanks – What Defra Didn’t Say, is based on published consultation responses and others made available to A Bigger Conversation. It suggests that in its rush to deliver on the governments the regulatory agenda, Defra has missed, glossed over or simply failed to understand key points and thoughtful arguments being made by those groups and individuals who responded to the public consultation.

Whilst expressing support for, or opposition to, the deregulation of gene editing in agriculture, many of the submissions reviewed were thoughtful and qualified. There was more nuance, more acknowledgement of complexity and uncertainty and even a surprising amount of agreement between usually opposing sides.

For example, while most of the pro- responses expressed a belief that gene editing is a safe technology, those calling for complete deregulation were in a minority. Most expressed a desire for some kind of regulation and for a clear and accepted legal definition of gene editing moving forward. Many, on both sides of the ideological divide, suggested a ‘case-by-case’ assessment.

Key areas of agreement

There is also evidence of important areas of overlap between traditionally opposing sides.

A key area of agreement was the near universal criticism of Defra’s framing and justification for the deregulation on the basis that gene editing produces organisms that “could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, groups and individuals that question the government’s deregulatory agenda objected to this framing. But so did organisations more favourably-inclined towards genetic technologies.

The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), for instance, called it “overly simplistic”; the Microbiology Society said it was “purely philosophical”; the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was “not convinced that this is either the most proper or most popular framing”; while the Roslin Institute found it “exceptionally challenging”.

The British Veterinary Association refers to it variously as “fundamentally flawed” and “leading, misleading, poorly defined, and likely driven by industry”. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) suggests: “The use of traditional breeding methods as a benchmark for what is and what is not acceptable is neither useful, nor scientifically logical”.

The Royal Society calls it “problematic”; the Royal Society of Biology said it provided “no clear criteria” and further noted that “No clarity can be achieved using this principle” and “we would not recommend using it as the basis for regulation.”

The FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel foods and Processes (ACNFP) notes that it would “not be possible to say categorically that any modification made via genome editing will present a similar risk to a product from traditional breeding unless it was clearly demonstrated that an equivalent outcome had been achieved.”

A battle for definitions

The new analysis also suggests that the new discourse around genetic technologies has become a battle for definitions. It’s a war of words based not on science nor social, economic or ethical values, nor even viable foundations for policy, but on control of the “narrative”.

In this battle important but inconvenient arguments such as those around IPR, coexistence and the need for greater public involvement in decision-making around growing and eating genetically engineered food are simply swept under the carpet.

Some noted, for instance, that Defra’s framing of gene editing as something that could “occur naturally” or through “traditional breeding” is not only an untenable basis for regulation, it also has far reaching implications for intellectual property rights. As some responses pointed out, if gene edited organisms are the same as what occurs naturally then they can’t, by definition, be patented.

Coexistence – the right of farmers to use the production methods they wish and the right of consumers to buy, or not, food produced using methods they approve or disapprove of – is another inconvenient issue.

While coexistence emerged as a concern in several submissions, no concrete proposals were put forward (by either side) for how to manage it – and none are forthcoming from Defra. Instead, the views could be summed up rather weakly as ‘the supply chain will adapt’ or ‘the market will sort it out’.

The new report also notes that emerging issues such as the use of new genetic technologies in conservation, which invariably complicate any moves to deregulate, have not been acknowledged by Defra.

Ignoring public opinion

In his comments at the recent Oxford Farming Conference Defra Minister George Eustice responded to a question about the high percentage of those who responded to the consultation who were against deregulation. Eustice decried the large number of responses that public consultations attract from “from a single campaign or lobby group”. Indeed, Defra removed these from its own analysis.

“You don’t only have to look at the number of emails received,” said Eustice, “you have to look at the validity of the arguments made and from those with scientific knowledge and expertise.”. But on the basis of A Bigger conversations analysis his department didn’t do either.

Even after removing those campaign responses – 52% of all responses – from its official analysis, 85% of respondents were opposed to deregulation.

Defra noted in its official response to the consultation that: “Most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were evenly split (50%). A slightly higher proportion of public sector bodies (55%) and academic institutions (58%) did not support continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs.”

But stated this way, these figures are disingenuous. Public sector bodies and academic institutions, for instance, made up only around 1% of the responses. Defra says each response was treated equally (i.e., not weighted) but given its decision to press ahead with deregulation, these minority views, which support the government’s plans, as stated prior to the consultation, do appear to have carried disproportionate weight.

Falling behind

Whilst A Bigger Conversation was only able to view a small handful of the submissions Defra received, it is clear that numerous organisations and individuals were raising important questions about the framing and therefore legitimacy of the consultation and the government’s interpretation of the data.

The groups that chose to make their responses public were, for the most part, well-informed and well-practised at putting their long-held views across and participating in the peculiar form of ‘democracy’ that public consultations represent. They represented a deep well of knowledge and expertise across many different sectors and perspectives.

Post-consultation, Defra has indicated that it is continuing to gather views and evidence to inform policy development. That, of course, was also the officially stated intention of the consultation and given the findings of this new analysis it is difficult to summon much faith in the ongoing process.

Given the nuance and overlap expressed in the consultation responses it read A Bigger Conversation concludes that, in its attempts to get ahead with a rather hasty agenda, Defra has failed to notice that it is falling behind on key arguments. Even as the government’s position becomes entrenched, those – from all sides – with greater knowledge of the technology and of the historical landscape of the debate are shifting and reassessing, at least in some areas.

Choosing to get it wrong?

Defra’s process of gathering views, says Pat Thomas, Director of A Bigger Conversation, is still prioritising the views of a very narrow group of stakeholders and using the same misleading framework as the consultation to deliver a predetermined outcome.

“Our discussions throughout 2021 suggested that people and organisations on all sides were frustrated with what was, in the end, a messy consultation process and a token analysis of the nearly 6500 submissions received by Defra,” she notes.

“As we read through the submissions, it was clear that there was more nuance, more acknowledgement of complexity and uncertainty and even a surprising amount of agreement between usually opposing sides. There is a huge amount of insight and expertise available from all sides, and there is the sheer weight of public opinion to take into account. If Defra is ignoring all this, in a rush to deregulate, it is doing so by choice. We have to ask: What is the reason for that choice? Whom does it benefit?”

The new analysis, which adds missing and much-needed depth to the discussions around the regulation of genetic technologies, notes there are still no validated impact assessments looking at the costs, benefits and risks of regulatory changes. There are promises, but no real-world evidence to show that gene editing will deliver against measurements such as sustainability, carbon savings, higher yield or better nutrition.

There are no clear scientific criteria for deregulation and no plan to develop social, ethical or values- based criteria that will enrich and guide the approval process for genetically engineered plants, animals and microorganisms. There is no plan to assess alternatives and no plan for involving citizens – as equals – in the decision-making process. There are no plans for managing co-existence at any point along the supply chain. There is no plan for how to deal with liability issues including those around intellectual property rights. There is no clear plan for labelling.

All of these things, so basic to the development of reasoned and viable policy and regulation, it suggests, need to be rectified before any legitimate plan to change UK regulations can proceed.

Download the full report Filling in the Blanks: What Defra Didn’t Say – An Alternative Analysis of the UK Government’s Consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies.