October 8, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Post-Brexit gene editing regulation
Some of us are old enough to remember the controversies surrounding genetically modified or engineered foods and crops that raged in Europe (which included the UK) around the turn of the millennium. Some of us are even old enough to remember debates about recombinant DNA in the seventies (for those who don’t, I recommend Matthew Cobb’s recent radio programme Genetic Dreams – Genetic Nightmares). Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have seldom been out of the newspapers since then, but things went relatively quiet over the last two decades.
In around 2015 a new genetic engineering technology arrived to complicate things: gene or genome editing, which allows scientists to change the genome of a plant or crop by rearranging or renovating its existing genetic furniture or even throwing some stuff out, instead of buying new completely different pieces of furniture to replace old ones – so to speak. This complicated the debate about genetic engineering.
At the end of September 2021, a new chapter has been added to this debate, with the UK government grasping the opportunity of Brexit to try and leave behind European regulations on genetic modification and to begin to go it alone.
Consultation and regulation
At the beginning of this year the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) launched a public consultation on how to regulate genetic technologies, in particular gene editing. The results were interesting, with the majority of those who submitted responses pointing out problems and voicing concerns. However, the government also listened to academic institutions which were rather more in favour of using gene editing to modify or engineer plants and crops, and these voices seem to have carried more weight than the others (see for example Rothamstead here).
On 16 September Lord Frost launched plans to ‘capitalise on Brexit freedoms’, including no longer being constrained by European regulations on GMO’s which, it is argued, do, to put it crudely, not distinguish between transspecies modification (buying in new furniture) and intraspecies editing (rearranging or remodelling old furniture). On 29 September the government issued a press release entitled “Plans to unlock power of gene editing unveiled” in which it sets out its proposals to change the regulation of genetic technologies, especially gene editing (more details on the plans here).
What does this regulatory move mean or involve? In the EU, gene editing and genetic modification are essentially treated in the same way, i.e. both types of genetic engineering are to all intends and purposes banned. This stance is based on a ruling in in July 2018 by the European Court of Justice that plant genome editing would fall under the GMO Directive meaning that plants developed through genome editing must go through the same regulatory approval pathway as GM plants (see Helliwell et al., 2019).
There are moves to rethink this stance in Europe, but, given that the UK is now outside Europe, the UK government wants to accelerate this rethink and regulate gene editing in a different way to genetic modification on the grounds that, as the government press release says:
“Gene editing is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes – but currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.”
This distinction between gene editing and genetic modification is the central argument for gradually reviewing the regulations of gene editing, first in plants, later in animals – and, it should be stressed, first in England amongst all UK nations, as others, like Scotland, are opposed to this move.
How did the press react to this announcement? There was some coverage, but given the current situation (Covid, petrol shortages and other Brexit-related disasters), this didn’t garner a lot of attention. I searched for “gene editing” in UK newspapers between 16 September and 16 October on the news database Nexis and only found around 40 articles pertinent to the topic – and surprisingly none repeated the ‘unlock’ metaphor, although it was used in other online articles.
Making and blurring distinctions
Almost every article focused on the central dichotomy set up in the press release to draw a line between gene editing and genetic modification, a line that is much blurrier than one might think though (see here Janneke Balk’s description for example; or words of caution by the Soil Association here).
Almost all the articles repeated words by the Environment Minister George Eustice who was quoted in the press release as saying that gene editing has “the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided”; or as a DEFRA spokesperson said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, such as breeding crops that perform better, benefitting farmers and reducing impacts on the environment. (i-independent, 17 September) Mother nature! So it can’t be bad, can it? Here distinctions are blurred rather than made, namely between traditional breeding and gene editing. The argument is that gene editing is just like traditional breeding – but scientists are in control.
This is linked to an argument relating to speed: Gene editing ‘just’ speeds up the breeding process.Gene editing is generally said to be quick, fast, precise, and targeted. Indeed, some talk of new “precision breeding technologies” (e.g. NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw). Gene editing is natural, but ‘just’ quicker and more precise, the argument goes.
And finally. gene editing is said to be a tool for innovation and for tackling challenges like food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.
It seems that this bounty of goodness can now be ‘unlocked’, as we get rid of European red tape, make a “bonfire of red tape” and throw away the European “shackles”. Instead of red tape we have a “green light” to go for it, to set out “on a path” to a better future for which this regulation “paves the way”, indeed there is also talk about a “revolution” in agriculture, a new breeding revolution.
Here I will mainly focus on how the central dichotomy that structures the press release, between gene editing and genetic modification, is reported in the press.
Gene editing and genetic modification
As early as 17 September, the i-independent points that that: “While gene editing involves deleting, boosting or otherwise tweaking genes from the same species, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by inserting DNA from one organism into another. (i-independent, 17 September) The word ‘tweaking’ is also used in The Times on 29 September, the day of the press release. Tweaking is, it is implied, less nefarious than inserting something foreign.
The Independent goes a bit more into the process of gene editing and uses a now ubiquitous metaphor denoting precision: “The process of editing a gene is often described as like using scissors to cut the DNA at a specific point. Scientists can then add, remove or change the DNA as required. Generally speaking, gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from other species – that is genetic modification (GM).” (The Independent, 29 September) We can, it is claimed, do what nature does, only better, more precisely, ‘as required’ or desired. Instead of jumbling things up randomly and hoping for the best, as nature does, science uses scissors in a controlled fashion.
Just and only
However, while gene editing goes beyond nature, it also is like nature. Many articles use words like ‘just’ and ‘only’ to attenuate the difference between natural breeding and gene editing. The Scotsman writes: “Commenting on the announcement, NFU Scotland said that while gene editing was just another breeding technique, it offered access to traits which could benefit animal welfare, public health, the environment, and farmers” (Scotsman, 17 September), while the Herald goes for ‘only’ and ‘no more’:
“Genetic editing should not be confused with genetic modification. It only involves removing an undesirable trait from within an organism’s own genome and amounts to no more than a speeding up of gene selection processes that could occur naturally. Genetic modification alters the genetic make-up of a plant, animal or micro-organism by transferring a piece of DNA from one organism to a different organism.” (Herald, Scotland, 28 September) Speed is highlighted again and, of course, removing something ‘undesirable’ is implicitly a good thing.
Overall then the focus is on human control, precision and speed.
Critique and reflection
It seems that most articles accepted the dichotomy as proposed by the press release. There were a few articles by well-known science writers (Ben Webster for The Times, Fiona Harvey for The Guardian and Geoffrey Lean for the Mail Online) that did not quite leave it at that.
Amongst these Fiona Harvey was the most outspoken – she squarely says that gene editing is a form of genetic modification: “Ministers are keen to use Brexit to allow gene editing, a form of genetic modification that is heavily restricted in the EU, to be used in the UK, despite a public consultation that found 87% of people who responded viewed gene-edited crops as a greater risk than traditional crop breeding methods.” (The Guardian, 29 September) She also stresses most forcefully that ministers seem not to have listened to all the critical comments and suggestions made in the public consultation.
Off-target effects are only mentioned once directly in my sample, in an article by Ben Webster for The Times, and once more indirectly in this passage by Geoffrey Lean for the Mail Online. I quote it in full because it is quite nuanced and uses the ‘book’ (of life) metaphor that has been around in genetics and genomics since the 1960s (I have left out the paragraphs):
“And all this, they add, will be achieved by using a simple, swift, precise technology that makes tiny changes, which they liken to editing a giant manuscript by changing a single word. They say it is so tightly controlled that it only produces predictable results, in contrast to traditional genetic modification, where there is often no way of ensuring precisely where the introduced genes end up. Meanwhile, they add, it is safe, and only produces changes indistinguishable from those that would happen in nature.” BUT, he points out: “They say that even tiny changes to DNA can have big consequences, and gene editing has proved in practice to be neither precise nor predictable, but has had many unintended effects.”
Although ‘Frankenfoods’ are mentioned in the press, especially in the Daily Mail, and although some journalists take a rather critical stance on the proposed new regulations of gene editing, the coverage overall has been in line with the promissory discourse of the press release, based on establishing a clear boundary between gene editing (tweaking desirable stuff) and genetic modification (swapping alien stuff) and blurring the boundaries between traditional/natural breeding and gene editing.
Many articles mention, however, that a large proportion of submissions to the consultation were critical. But what did these marginalised voices actually have to say? Some are quoted, such the views from the RSPCA, the NGO GM Freeze or the Soil Association saying that gene editing is not a silver bullet, but there are more, such as the British Veterinary Association etc etc.. (For more info on the government response to the consultation see here)
I can’t analyse all these voices here, but I just want to highlight one of them, not quoted in any of the articles I saw, namely the response by the Royal Society, which made an important point (see also Royal Society of Biology). Dame Linda Partridge wrote a blog post on the matter and points out that:
“the Government has been consulting on whether to treat the products of one genetic technology, genome editing, as GMO or not. This is unfortunate, because it perpetuates the false assumption that risk is determined by the breeding technology rather than the outcomes that the breeding technology is used to deliver. In responding to this consultation the Royal Society instead calls for a move towards a regulatory system that focuses on the outcome rather than the technology.”
I can’t go into all the ins and outs of this argument, which is developed in minute detail in the Royal Society’s submission to the consultation. One thing is important to mention here: the focus on outcome rather than technology allows people to also question the purpose of any genetic technology and thus opens up a space to voice wider societal concerns. I very much doubt that such societal involvement will happen any time soon though, in the current political climate.
In this post I have only dipped a toe into the gene editing regulation debate. Somebody with more time and resources might want to plunge in much deeper and look at its implications for science and society in a post-Brexit world.
PS: Some further reading suggested by Aleksandra Stelmach – mainly two contributions by Jack Stilgoe and others