Via Beyond G-M Genetic Technology Bill – What Just Happened?
The government’s Genetic Technology Bill went through its Report stage in the House of Lords on Wednesday. This is really the last stage where consequential amendments can be proposed. There weren’t many and only those ‘tweaks’ proposed by government got through. Barring any cleaning up of language, the bill is likely in its final form (see here). We expect confirmation when it goes back to the House of Commons to be swift. That’s the headline. But there are some nuances and some good news and bad news to be aware of. One amendment that was taken up was for the removal of the clause stating that so-called ‘precision bred’ organisms could occur naturally. Calls for this amendment originated in civil society and Beyond GM led the charge for this change from a legal perspective. We believe our work challenging the legality of this and highlighting the possibility that developers could have their patents taken away if they continued to make this claim, was highly influential. Baroness Natalie Bennett was the only peer brave enough to agree to challenge the government on this and we thank her for her intervention. There is a but… the clause stating that precision bred organisms are the same as those created through traditional processes remains. This is problematic and has implications for labelling reform. The UK Food Standards Agency is still refusing to consider labelling – arguing that if a precision bred organism could be created through traditional processes then it is not a novel food and does not need to be labelled. The transcript of the Report stage debate makes for interesting reading. There was a generally high level of anger and frustration expressed by Peers trying to get the bill amended. Baroness Parminter‘s description of trying to get amendments accepted for consideration only to be told by government that it “could be seen as being too burdensome a requirement for industry” was revealing. She and another peer, Lord Cameron, described the government as having a “protective carapace” that meant serious concerns didn’t even make a dent in the bill process. Here’s a few other things to file away: In the crazy ideas file, the bill, as it stands, is not restricted to agriculture and allows the gene-editing of wild and non-agricultural plants and wild and non-agricultural animals including pets. In the laugh until you cry file, a new Government narrative, introduced during the report stage debate, suggested that its vested-interest scientists were the “centre of gravity” and dissenting scientists were outliers. This phrase came up several times and was used to deflect and avoid answering serious questions. In the small slivers of hope file, in the last week both the Welsh and Scottish governments rejected the Legislative Consent Memorandums which would have given the UK government permission to make the bill apply to their countries. We await further developments. Finally, in the disturbing peek at how the government works file, a letter from Defra Minister, Lord Benyon, who is responsible for taking the bill through the Lords, was leaked. In it he tries to explain why everyone should stop complaining and just trust in the government’s good intentions. He also explains why requiring genetically modified organisms to fulfil some sort of proven public good is just too hard. Beyond GM and GMWatch jointly published an open response to this, which you might enjoy reading. Things do seem a little bleak now, but it’s worth remembering that this is a skeletal bill, with multiple regulations still to be brought in and therefore more chances to debate and make amendments. These will likely come very swiftly, over the course of this year so we’d like to encourage you all to stay with us and stay involved in the fight to constrain the government’s GMO ambitions. As long as the public remains silent, government will regard that as agreement. So please speak out. Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward