A personal ‘long read’ blog from Member of the Food Ethics Council Patrick Mulvany, criticising the proposed weakening of English regulations on genetic technologies.
Noone can be in doubt that we need to get a grip on our collective behaviours if we are to deal with the existential crises that beset us. These include the climate emergency, the impacts of poor nutrition, the dangers of pandemics and, underlying all of these, the threats to the biodiversity of all living beings, including us humans, who inhabit our unique and precious biosphere.
Through complex, interdependent biological processes, biodiversity helps regulate the quality of air, water and soils in the biosphere and, through intricate food webs, provides us and all other species with foods that sustain life on Earth. From the earliest organised societies and today’s peasants who dynamically manage the agricultural biodiversity with which they co-evolved, humans have known the importance of their place within overall biodiversity and the need to regulate collective behaviours so that we comply with the norms and laws that safeguard biodiversity and the biosphere. They recognise the imperative of ‘working with nature’.
In recent decades, innumerable wise decisions of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) have been taken collectively by governments to stem the haemorrhage of biodiversity both in the wild and also of agricultural biodiversity in the landscapes and fisheries directly managed and impacted by people. These include CBD decisions since 1996 on agricultural biodiversity, which confirmed the need to transform destructive industrial food production in favour of supporting biodiversity-enhancing ecological production systems. The implementation of these life-affirming decisions for the public good has been wanting, however, as they bump up against the powerful, vested interests that are responsible for most biodiversity losses. Driven by the power of proprietary modern technologies, these vested interests facilitate the pervasive spread of profitable biodiversity-destroying plantation monocultures, livestock factories and industrial aquaculture and fisheries feeding insatiable international commodity chains.
There’s no doubt that in order to confront the challenges of biodiversity loss and its impacts on our life support systems, it’s the responsibility of governments to rein in these industrial activities and ensure rigorous regulation of actions by legal persons (they’re legally-constituted corporations). Maintaining the integrity of the biosphere and nature’s complex biological processes within biodiversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels that have evolved over millennia must be the overriding priority.
We tinker with nature’s biological processes, especially at the fundamental genetic level, at our peril. It’s imperative that we regulate any activities that could undermine these processes through, for example, releases into the environment of laboratory-derived genetically modified organisms (GMOs) including those developed through gene editing. This includes the much-vaunted CRISPR technique that can pluck single genes from a chromosome. But such GMOs could also create a ‘chromosomal mayhem’ in organisms and lead to ‘off-target effects’ and ‘unexpected consequences’, which may not become immediately apparent. Regulations are needed to prevent the release of flawed organisms and to check that none are imported from countries that do not have rigorous controls.
Regulations provide important safeguards against health, environmental and agricultural risks through enforcing strict assessments, effective monitoring and traceability and transparent labelling rules. As a commentator on the Canadian process for deregulating gene-edited GMOs said: “I believe that when regulators come to understand the existence of serious off-target effects, they will drop the idea of deregulating these technologies. It would be scientifically indefensible to deregulate them.”
So, I was somewhat alarmed when the DEFRA Chief Scientist, while claiming that environmental and climate benefits were his main motivation, called not for strengthening but for weakening existing regulations on technologies that are designed to disrupt nature at the genetic level. He was promoting the weakening of the regulations that would make it easier for experimental, disruptive gene-edited GMOs to be released into the environment and our agriculture and food system – the subject of a recent DEFRA ‘consultation’. That the proposed benefits could actually be achieved by tried and tested non-GMO, biodiverse, agroecological technologies is only mentioned disparagingly even though these are biodiversity enriching and climate friendly, and work with nature. Agroecology, not GMOs, should be at the heart of all food, agriculture and environmental policies.
In response to the consultation, many organisations representing farmers, food campaigners and environmentalists rejected the proposed weakening of regulations and submitted well-argued objections. In their response, the Food Ethics Council also raised pertinent questions about the ethical basis for such changes and requested detailed responses from government before any steps towards weakening regulations were considered further.
Clearly, the most sensible way of dealing with risky and unproven gene-edited GMOs is, at a minimum, to keep them in the current single regulatory framework for GMOs, implemented under the Precautionary Principle, as agreed by the European Court of Justice and the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, with clear labelling of products if they were to be released or imported. But that view is under attack from government and corporate interests and the scientific community which supports these. They share the dogma of a profitable boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economy from the development, use and export of these patentable biotechnologies and associated know-how.
They control the narrative and, once again in order to get public support, they are promoting benefits such as: coping with the climate crisis, achieving net-zero, improving nutrition, eliminating hunger, reducing pesticide/agrochemical use. This is much the same as 25 years ago when first generation GMOs were being released in the USA. As we now know, those benefits were never realised. In fact, all have become much worse. As the Cumbrian shepherd, James Rebanks, said, much of American farming is the least sustainable and most ecologically damaging on Earth.
If regulations are weakened, it will further unleash the power of AgBiotech corporations, four of which already control 60% of industrial seeds (and much more of the GMO seed market), to produce, even faster, seeds and livestock breeds with profitable traits. These will be traits that increase dependence on corporate inputs, such as pesticides, antibiotics and other agrochemicals, or traits which might otherwise help prop up the unsustainable industrial monocultures and intensive livestock/aquaculture operations that produce commodities for industrial food chains and plant-based industries. For example, in the development of gene-edited GMO crops, the most common trait is herbicide tolerance and the first to be developed for commercial use was a patented waxy corn (a variety of maize) modified to contain a starch tailored for processed foods, adhesives and high-gloss paper. Furthermore, if there were no regulatory requirements for labelling the origin of products from these technologies, authorities would not know and citizens could not exercise choice thereby allowing greater market access for GMOs.
Of even greater concern, the impacts of weakening regulations will also be felt in other regions: the centuries-long pattern of colonial dumping of technologies and systems, as witnessed by Albert Howard in India for example, that damaged and destroyed biodiverse ecosystems, but profited the colonisers, will be repeated in the global South by today’s ‘neo-colonisers’. The drive for exports of patented biotechnologies and know-how is being ramped up by 10 Downing Street and others in government. These technologies will feature in all the 2021 UN Summits, especially the Climate Conference presided over by the UK, at which the government may well seek to promote UK plc’s interests in increasing agbiotech exports, to the wider detriment of the biosphere and potentially limiting human rights. UN agreements on Farmers’ Rights (IT PGRFA), Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (UNDRIP) and Peasants’ Rights (UNDROP) will be undermined by an increased focus of attention on, and roll-out of, proprietary GMOs across the world. These will further threaten the rights to seeds and agricultural biodiversity of the smallholder farmers and other small-scale food producers who currently provide the food for 70% of people in the world.
The mood music from power-holders to weaken regulations is pushing us in the wrong direction. What we need is a new, ‘Gaiacentric’ approach to the oversight of regulatory frameworks and research priorities that is ‘bottom-up’, democratic and independent of corporate and research interests. One, such as citizens’ assemblies, that is geared to the interests of citizens not corporations and their acolytes, i.e. to natural not legal persons. This approach could herald the strict implementation of regulations on biodiversity-destroying industrial production and the research that props it up, in favour of support for smaller-scale agroecological production and its associated (not-for-profit) innovative research and innovation systems.
In the year when many eyes are on how we can live within planetary boundaries, wouldn’t the UK be in the vanguard of nations seeking to work with nature if it were to promote agricultural biodiversity-enhancing, climate-change-adaptive, nutrient-dense agroecology? As demonstrated by the main food providers of the world, their biodiverse agroecological systems, when developed in the framework of food sovereignty, deliver healthy foods to resilient, local food webs – and could do so for everyone, forever.
Weakening regulations is taking us down the wrong track.