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GM Regulation in Britain

protester outside UK parliament

Key Information

Anyone in the UK wanting to grow GM crops outside of a contained environment like a laboratory must comply with the EU Directive EC/18/2001 on the "deliberate release" of genetically modified organisms. This is known for including the 'precautionary principle', which means that, theoretically, proposals can be rejected to prevent the risk of harm occurring, even if there is no hard evidence that it will. In practice however, this law is interpreted very differently in different EU countries, and there are serious doubts about the extent to which the precautionary principle is always upheld, especially because the risk analysis is done by the same company or research institution that has instigated the trial. Additionally, while this law requires public consultation to take place this is very narrow in its scope, and socio-economic concerns, (such as worries about the effects contamination might have on people's livelihoods) are not taken into account.

GM food has to be labeled, but there are loopholes in the law. Applications anywhere in the EU considered by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) who conduct what they describe as a "risk assessment". However, this relies entirely on information provided by the company that wants to sell their product. Additionally, if that company can demonstrate that their GM food is 'substantially equivalent' to a conventional one, then no further testing, (such as long term feeding studies) needs to be done.

 

Deliberate Release Process

The 'notifier' (i.e. whoever wants to grow the GM crops) has to draw up a risk assessment and pass this on to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE)1, who in a certain period of time must produce 'advice' as to the validity of the risk assessment, and then pass this on to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA, currently headed by Caroline Spelman) which has the final decision making power over whether it should be approved and what conditions should be imposed. The trial is then monitored by the GM Inspectorate.

 

Consultation

Public consultation must happen "in order to give the public or groups the opportunity to express an opinion" - this does not mean that anyone will to listen to that opinion, and ACRE can dismiss 'submissions' from the public that they don't regard as sufficiently scientific and relevant to the specific application.2 The notifier can request for information to be kept confidential for the sake of competitiveness, but their request won't necessarily be honoured. The UK recently discussed keeping trial sites secret as a means of dealing with invasion and destruction of crops by protesters. However, the European Court of Justice ruled in February 2009 that this would contravene EU Directive 2001/18 which states that "in no case" must the "location of release" be kept confidential.3

 

Environmental 'Risk Assessment'

GM trial site, showing blocks of GM crops and control cropsThis law requires a thorough environmental risk assessment following the precautionary principle. Article 4 (of Directive EC/18/2001)4 demands that adverse effects on human health or the environment are "accurately assessed". It acknowledges that these may be indirect, which Annex II explains as occurring as a result of a "causal chain of events". It also acknowledges that the effects of the GMO may be delayed, occurring after the set period for the release of the GMO. It also stresses in Annex II that "an analysis of the cumulative long-term effects relevant to the release ... must be carried out". This includes "accumulated effects on human health and the environment, including inter alia flora and fauna, soil fertility, soil degradation of organic material, the feed/food chain, biological diversity, animal health and resistance problems in relation to antibiotic resistance." It also states that "It is important not to discount any adverse effects on the basis that it is unlikely to occur". However, evidence that ACRE and DEFRA do dismiss risks on the grounds that they are 'unlikely to occur' and are not therefore applying the precautionary principle can be found in the approval process for the BASF blight resistant potatoes.

 

Labelling Loopholes

ThereMember of the public puts a warning label on GM meat in a supermarket is a requirement that if a food contains GM this should be clearly indicated in the ingredients list. However, there is no need to acknowledge that animals have been fed on GM feed, and where a GM ingredient can be shown to be 'adventitious', (i.e. it got there by cross-contamination or because countries like the US don't separate GM and non-GM crops) and where that ingredient is less than 0.9% of the total product, it does not have to be labelled. GM processing aids are also excluded from the labelling law, based on the theory that they are irrelevant because they don't appear in the finished product.5 This assumption, however, may be flawed: a major example to the contrary are the enzymes used in industrial bread making, some of which are genetically modified and which are often held accountable for the dramatic rise in wheat allergies in the last few decades6.

 

Safety testing: neither thorough nor independent

Under regulation (EC) 1829/2003 all approval of GM food or feed is done by the European Food Safety Authority, and then theoretically applies to all EU member states (although some countries hold specific bans on GM crops or foods). According to EFSA each application involved a "thorough review" by a panel of 21 experts.7 However, these experts do not conduct their own tests. Instead, they consider the contents of a dossier provided by the company, and if the new GM food is demonstrated to be 'substantially equivalent' to its non-GM counterpart, (i.e. with similar 'molecular characteristics' and containing a similar level of a few key chemicals such as toxins, allergens and nutrients) then no further information is requested. However, this kind of testing might not detect unpredicted and new toxins or allergens, and animal feeding tests that have been done on approved GM foods have shown worrying results. The fact that EFSA has only ever produced favourable advice on new GMOs indicates that the system is set up not for the testing of new foods, but simply to facilitate their rapid approval.

 

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Footnotes

1(Details of current ACRE members as well as their declarations of interests are available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/acre/about/index.htm accessed 20.02.09).

2 e.g. Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, 'Advice on an application for deliberate release of a GMO for research and development purposes', Ref: 06/R42/01, 13.11.06,

3'ECJ Ruling Scuppers Plans for Secret GM Test Sites', 18.02.09, http://www.gmfreeze.org/page.asp?id=265&iType=1079, last viewed 03.03.09

4Directive 2001/18/EC of the European parliament and of the council of 12 March 2001, available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/regulation/index.htm

5'Guidance notes from Food Standards Agency Scotland and Scottish executive environment and rural affairs department: Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003, genetically modified food and feed; Regulation (EC) No 1830/2003, traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms and the traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms and amending Directive2001/18.' Downlaod at v, last viewed 23.05.09

6Whitley, Andrew, 'What have they done to the grain?' www.breadmatters.com/files/health.pdf, last viewed 23.05.09

7European Food Safety Authority website, 'Genetically modified organisms', http://www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/efsa_locale-1178620753812_1178621185493.htm, last viewed 23.05.09