UK government removes ‘barriers’ from GMO field trials

Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward Beyond GM

Last night (15 March 2022) the House of Lords voted through the Statutory Instrument (SI) which will remove restrictions from GMO field trials in England. This was the final hurdle and 21 days from now this change becomes law. The new regulation amends the UK’s Environmental Protection Act 1990 creating a regulatory exemption for field trials of GMOs that “could have occurred naturally” or been created through traditional breeding. It was voted through without much opposition and without any accompanying scientific guidance on how to determine if a GMO is “natural”. We are told this guidance will come at the end of April, however this will be non-statutory and, therefore, non-binding.

The government insists that this is a “limited” change. However, under the new rules anyone wishing to plant this subset of GMOs can essentially self-certify that their GMOs are natural/traditional and will no longer need to seek permission to conduct a trial or to plant an experimental GMO crop for any “non-marketing” reason (non-marketing can include research but it can also include seed multiplication or demonstration fields or gardens).

Under the new rules:

  • There is now only minimal paperwork and no license fee (in fact, no license is required)
  • There are no requirements for separation from organic and non-GMO fields
  • There is no longer a requirement to collect and destroy trial crops
  • There is no longer a requirement for a public notice of the when, where or the extent of GMO field trials
  • The exempted class of (seeded) plants is not limited to agricultural crops but includes trees, flowers, shrubs and grasses

 But also some positives

With your help we gave the government a hard time. Via our e-action platform you generated hundreds of letters to MPs helping to raise the level of awareness of this issue in the House of Commons. Thank you! Through this we learned more about who is and isn’t “onside” and this will be invaluable in the next phase of the campaign.

We got a lot of our key points into the debates on the SI and this is now on government record, for instance in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report, in the text of the Delegated Legislation Committee meeting and in the Lords debate.

This helped ensure that the government was challenged every time it attempted to misrepresent the results of last year’s public consultation by insinuating that citizens were in favour of deregulation and it ensured a high profile for all the groups and institutions that challenged Defra on its contention that there were GMOs that “could have occurred naturally”. In last night’s debate it was clear that Defra had no valid answers to such challenges.

For those who are interested you can watch the Lords debate, which began at 9.16pm on 14 March, here and/or read the transcript here. You might also be interested in the Lords briefing here. You can also watch the Delegated Legislation Committee meeting here and/or read the transcript here.

We anticipate that the next big hurdle will be the Government White Paper on how it will implement suggestions made in the National Food Strategy (NFS). This is important because the NFS was very positive about GMO crops and foods as sustainability “tools”. You can read more about our concerns here.

There will be more opportunities to push back on the progress of deregulation. We will be back in touch very soon as things develop.

Editor’s note: Beyond GM  is a new independent initiative set up by experienced campaigners and journalists. Its goal is to raise the level of the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the UK and elsewhere, at both the local and national level. Its activities aim to broaden the discussion about GMOs beyond the abstract, and often impenetrable, scientific and academic arena and into the public arena.

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