Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture, said there were ‘legitimate worries’ surrounding gene editing. She called on the UK and EU to adhere to a ‘precautionary principle’ in relation to its introduction.
Gene editing involves making precise changes to an organism’s DNA to produce changes over time. Potential benefits include producing crops that are more resistant to disease or higher in certain nutrients. Last week the European Commission launched a review into the legislation governing the technique, declaring it ‘not fit for purpose’.
Earlier this year, the UK Government opened a consultation on changing the law to enable the gene editing of crops. Following this there has been press speculation that the relaxation of the rules will be announced during the Queen’s Speech on 11 May.
Clarkson said the UK and the EU seemed to be heading in the same direction on gene editing. However, she added: “We have concerns that changes to regulatory regimes could lead to trading barriers that hurt the British food industry and ultimately impact our members’ jobs.
“We call on the UK government to deliver a cast iron guarantee that this will not happen,” she added.
In launching the Government consultation in January, George Eustice, environment secretary, said gene editing had the ability to ‘help us all adapt to the challenges of climate change’.
Responding to the point, Clarkson said: “Similar promises about pesticide reduction and plants being adapted for climate change were made by companies pushing the first generation of genetically modified crops.
“Those promises failed to materialise then and are now being made in relation to gene editing by many of the same agri-tech multinationals.
“These companies have proved time and again that their quest for market dominance obliterates labour or environmental rights regardless of where they operate.”
While conceding that there could be some ‘legitimate benefits’ to gene editing in agriculture, Clarkson added: “Our members across the food industry, from farming to manufacturing, are deeply concerned about its potential impact on the environment and consumer health, as well as on jobs and the wider food supply chain.”
In January, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) welcomed the Government consultation on gene editing as it ‘supported the use of technological solutions to increase the competitiveness of the UK supply chain’.
However, warning of the potential implications of a unilateral approach, FDF chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell added: “Divergence from European regulations could impact trade to the EU and also needs to be considered by government in parallel to the clear opportunity such a technology presents.”