UK citizens demand robust regulation of GMOs as radical legislation advances

 79% of citizens in the UK think that new “precision bred” GMOs should be labelled on-package; 83% think they should be safety tested

As the UK Government pursues a radical weakening of GMO regulation, a new poll shows that a significant majority of citizens living in the UK believe GMOs should be traceable and labelled. The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is currently advancing through the House of Lords, but the results of the poll suggest there would be little support for weaker regulations of so-called “precision bred organisms” compared to other GMOs in foods and farming.

According to the latest YouGov Poll,[1] commissioned by UK civil society group Beyond GM,[2] the overwhelming preference of citizens in the UK is for all GMOs in the farming and food system to be regulated, traceable and labelled:
• 79% of citizens in the UK think that precision bred crops, animals and foods should be clearly labelled on the food package
• 83% think precision bred organisms should undergo safety testing before being put on sale
• 80% think they should undergo environmental safety testing
• 79% think they should be traceable through the farming and food system.

The new polling comes as the Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill[3] heads for its second reading in the House of Lords next week.

The radical bill creates a new subclass of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – the “precision bred organism” (PBO) – which the government says no longer needs to be regulated, assessed, traceable, labelled or monitored once it is in the food system. It allows GMO developers to self-certify the safety and fitness of their organisms and places minimal restrictions on the planting of PBOs. The bill applies to England only.

The term “precision bred organism” does not exist in legislation anywhere else in the world and public awareness of this term is low – 87% of citizens in the UK had heard of the term GMO but 83% of those who had heard of the term GMO had never heard of a PBO.[4]
 
Lack of awareness of this term is problematic for a meaningful public debate on such a fundamental change to farming and food regulations.

Said Beyond GM director Pat Thomas, “People’s unfamiliarity with the term ‘precision bred organism’ is, we believe, proportionate to how disconnected and excluded so many feel from the regulatory debate. This lack of awareness has become a justification for government and the Food Standards Agency to engage in what it calls public education. The problem is that this public education is invariably more like indoctrination, providing only the narrative and the information that the government wants citizens to have.”[5]

For this poll, unfamiliarity with the term “precision bred organism” meant a significant number of respondents answered “don’t know” to some questions. However, the overwhelming trend of the answers was towards a desire for greater regulatory control:
• 49% thought it was unacceptable for regulations for PBOs in food and farming to be different across countries within the UK – compared to just 13% who thought this was acceptable
• 40% opposed having lower regulations for PBOs than for other types of GMOs – compared to just 12% who supported this
• 44% said they would prefer their food products not to contain GMOs and 42% said they would prefer their food products not to contain PBOs. Only 3% said they preferred their food products to contain either GMOs or PBOs.

The Bill has passed through the House of Commons unamended despite concerns raised by policy experts,[6] the scientific community,[7] retailers[8] and animal welfare campaigners.[9]

In this poll, a sizeable proportion of UK citizens expressed a lack of confidence that the government’s plan to remove regulatory control from PBOs would bring meaningful benefits:
• 43% were not confident the revised regulations would protect public health
• 46% were not confident they would protect the environment
• 45% were not confident that they would support consumers’ right to choose.

These results show where the public stands on this important issue and make clear that the radical proposals put forward in this Bill require urgent amendment to secure public confidence in this technology. The Government now has the opportunity, during the passage of the Bill in the House of Lords, to better reflect legitimate public concerns[10] and respond to the issues of traceability, environmental concerns and consumers rights.

Pat Thomas said, “This is a technically and scientifically flawed bill. It fails to take into account the longstanding unease and scepticism that UK citizens express towards all kinds of GMOs and it fails to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of UK farming, environmental and food laws. Peers now have an opportunity to give the bill the scrutiny it did not get in the Commons and to make the significant amendments that civil society is calling for, especially around labelling, traceability and environmental safety.”

Commenting, Claire Robinson of GMWatch said, “The new poll makes clear that most citizens oppose the government’s determination to create a ‘Wild West’ for GMO developers in England. I hope that the peers in the Lords can see that it is now their responsibility to ensure that the public’s desire for food safety, transparency, and a trustworthy food system is respected.”

Within the EU, an Ipsos opinion poll shows[11] that the vast majority (86%) of Europeans who have heard of GM crops want food produced from these plants to be labelled as such. It also shows that the majority (68%) of respondents who have heard of new GM techniques such as CRISPR, which the UK government terms “precision bred organisms”, want food produced with these techniques also labelled as GM. Ipsos conducted the representative survey between 11 February and 5 March 2021 in all 27 EU countries on behalf of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.

Notes

1. YouGov Political Omnibus. Total sample size was 1,733 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11-14 November 2022.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
2. Beyond GM is a leading UK civil society group that advocates for responsible regulation and a wider and more inclusive public debate around genetic engineering in food and farming.
3. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-03/0011/220011.pdf
4. This finding is in line with the findings of the 2022 FSA survey of Public Attitudes Towards Precision Breeding, October 2022 https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/survey-of-public-attitudes-towards-precision-breeding
5. For more on public disconnect with the regulatory process see the A Bigger Conversation report Filling in the Blanks – What Defra Didn’t Say.
6. The Regulatory Policy committee opinion of June 2022 determined that the bill was “not fit for purpose”. It notes that the bill does not make a convincing business case for the deregulation of gene-edited organisms, has not fully investigated the impact of wholesale deregulation across all the sectors that will be affected and has drawn conclusions about the benefits of deregulation only from vested interests.
7. 102 scientists and policy experts have signed a joint statement calling on the government to abandon the use of the term “precision breeding” in the bill. The impact assessment for the bill admits this is a colloquialism and the experts say it is scientifically inaccurate. See also explanatory note.
8. https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/fruit-and-veg/fresh-produce-industry-urges-government-caution-following-gene-editing-announcement/667842.article
9. https://www.farminguk.com/news/gene-editing-bill-a-serious-setback-for-animal-welfare-rspca-warns_60462.html
10. For more on this see the recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics report, Public dialogue on genome editing and farmed animals.
11. https://www.greens-efa.eu/en/article/news/opinion-poll-on-the-labelling-of-gm-crops

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