The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation

By Grant Jacobs 12/03/2015

Recommendations to the British parliament on GMO legislation and public engagement look useful for New Zealand.

I’ve previously suggested that the New Zealand legislation for Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) wants to be updated, or replaced.

I’ve also suggested that there wants to be fresh discussion on the topic, especially as it’s now been almost twenty years since GMOs have been publicly available and because the science of crop GMOs has moved on.

A few days ago the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee released a report on GMO legislation titled, Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution.

The panel drew on a wide number of reports and included views of those opposed to crop GMOs. Many of their conclusions and suggestions seem applicable to New Zealand.

Their description of the conceptual basis of EU legislation reads as being very similar to that used in NZ, in particular that the ruling was based on the process used to make the crop plants rather than traits of the crop plants, just as it’s done in NZ. They concluded,

We consider the current process-based EU legislative framework for GMOs to be fundamentally flawed and unfit for purpose.

I agree and suggest the same applies to the current New Zealand legislation.

These reports can take considerable time and effort to create. I like the idea that a smaller country might make use of reviews undertaken by countries with similar legislation but who are more able to put time and funds into it.

Below I’ve looked at their key conclusions. In a later article I have presented a summary of the report as a whole. Those wanting the original document can get it in HTML and PDF forms from the website hosting the report.

Their summary notes that a broader range of crop GMOs beyond assisting pest control (or productivity gain) are in the pipeline[1] and identifies three major flaws in the EU’s current regulatory regime for GMOs (I expand on these further below):

  1. That “the focus of the current regulatory system on GMOs is based on the assumption that genetically modified crops inherently pose greater risk than crops produced using other techniques.”
  2. “the current system assesses the risks posed by these products but fails to take account of their potentially significant benefits, to the producer, the consumer and, increasingly, the environment.”
  3. “it fails to observe the principle of subsidiarity, preventing member states from making their own decisions about whether or not to adopt a suite of products about which deep political divisions exist across the EU.”[2]

Of these, the first seems most immediately relevant to us in New Zealand.

As they go on to write,

This leads to a failure to recognise that the risk posed by a crop has little to do with how it is made and is mostly to do with the characteristics it displays and how it is used in the field. Such ‘process-based’ regulation also fails to keep pace with technology and therefore potentially acts as a block on innovation.

We have the same issue of a legislation written in terms of broadly how the plants are made, not their characteristics or use in the field.

Peter Dearden has written on this in Defining Genetic Modification. (I have also mentioned aspects of this in passing in earlier articles about GMOs; a list of these can be found at the end of this article.)

They recommend that the legislation be altered to judge according to the traits that a new crop plant have, rather than how it was made. This would consider each crop plant in it’s own merits, rather than lumping all those from, broadly speaking, are considered ‘genetically modified’.

As part of considering discussions about GMOs, the report notes that the use of ‘GM’ has become a sort of generic shorthand for many different techniques and tends to focus people on the techniques rather than the thing made and how it is used.[3]

Professor Sir Mark Walport is quoted as having said,

Whether GM technology is a good or bad thing is not a sensible question; it depends on how it is applied. The question in every case is: what gene, what organism and for what purpose?

The report notes that the term ‘GM’ tends to be associated with transgenic insertion and insect and herbicide resistance and adopted a practice of only using the term when referring to ‘first generation’ products,[4] referring to later techniques specifically by the technique involved.

The last point of the three listed above may appear to not have relevance, but they argue that the statements by opponents to GM have been overplayed for political reasons, e.g.

This forces those member states opposed to genetic modification on political grounds to dispute the science, exaggerating uncertainty and misrepresenting the precautionary principle in an attempt to delay or prevent EU-wide authorisation.

One thing to perhaps consider, then, is applying appropriate caution when reading these arguments.

I’ve previously suggested a need for more discussion on GMOs, and genetic engineering in general (see also links at end of this article). The committee suggests similar,

There is a need to reframe and widen what has been a debate[5] about ‘GM’, in order to initiate a new, more constructive conversation about what we want from food and agriculture. Only from that can we establish what role we would like advanced crop breeding approaches to play. We recommend a large scale public dialogue on the future of food and farming and a shift in the Government’s own frames of reference regarding these technologies. We also recommend that the Government clarify its own thinking about the precautionary principle, so that it can act as a better guide to policy making.

While Government needs to play a more significant role in informing the public about GM, it will never be the first port of call for many people. Other sources, including the media and non-governmental organisations, have a responsibility to provide accurate information, whatever their ideological slant. We urge those with a view about GM to be honest about the reasons for those views and not cloak value-based opposition in scientific terms.

This is not the first time we, as a Committee, have encountered a failure of Government to lead the debate about emerging issues in science and technology. We recommend that the Government develop an information hub with the National Academies as a starting point for the public debate. This should link to debates led by Sciencewise whose function the Government must continue to support. Finally, we recommend the establishment of a permanent citizens council, based on the model used by NICE, to help it understand the potential social and ethical impacts of developments in novel crop technologies[.]

The report briefly notes the wider use of genetic modification, than crop GMOs represent only a fraction of the applications of ‘genetic engineering’ (a point I’ve previously touched on). Some examples are bacteria engineered to produce molecules useful in medicine (insulin being the classic example), work towards producing biofuels, bacteria with useful biodegradation properties, and so on.

They discuss the use of the so-called ‘Precautionary Principle’ in some depth, pointing to a lack of clear definition of what this is, and to that the science of crop GMOs has moved on considerably since the drafting of the EU legislation approximately 20 years ago. (This principle underlies their legislation and was cited in the NZ court ruling on the ZFN-1 mutagenesis technology.) Among other points they raise is that the time the legislation was drafted the crop GMO products were transgenic, with the gene added essentially randomly with the genome, and now the genomes of many, if not most, crop plants have been sequenced, the techniques used to create new crop varieties are much broader and targeted to particular locations within a genome.

In addition to the report itself there are several news items, including:

A discussion at The Conversation also covers the recommendations, GM regulation ‘not fit for purpose’, says Commons committee – and it’s right by Jonathan Jones, Professor of Plant Biology at The Sainsbury Laboratory

In this piece I have focused mainly on their summary of the report, bringing in only a few aspects from the body of the report. In a follow-on article, I hope to offer a summary of sorts of the body of the report for those wanting more, but lacking time to read the full document. I encourage those with time to read the report itself — despite it’s length it’s quite readable. Those pressed for time might find it useful to read mainly the emboldened paragraphs that summarise each subsection of the report or the conclusion section towards the end. (I personally find the latter a bit dry and prefer the context provided by the former.)


I’d like to get back to writing about genetics and other things I enjoy writing about, but I feel it’s important than New Zealanders be aware that this report may usefully inform the direction (crop) GMO legislation might move to and might serve as focus for discussion.

1. The use of ‘in the pipeline’ could be clearer to my reading. There are already products developed: perhaps they mean just within the EU, as the products already developed are dominantly for other parts of the world. Alternatively they may be distinguishing between those that have been developed, but are still under trial, compared to those in active use by farmers.

2. They discuss within the report the impact the recent moves to have each member nation decide to use/not use crop GMOs that have been approved as safe, including some of the political implications.

3. It’s interesting to note that the EU definition of GM explicitly excludes humans.

4. I hope to cover this in my later piece summarising the report. Briefly the initial products are transgenic, and mainly focused on productivity gains e.g. tackling plant and insect competitors of the crop use whereas later efforts include a wider range of techniques and aims.

5. I dislike ‘debate’—discussion is much more useful.

Other articles on crop GMOs in Code for life:

Food and genetic modification: better informed policy and legislation wanted

Defining Genetic Modfication (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes)

How to avoid DNA (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes; read through to latter portion)

Scholarly outliers (Eric Crampton at The Dismal Science)

food matters aotearoa – an opportunity for real debate? or muddying the waters? (Alison Campbell at bioBlog)

Better discussion of GMOs in NZ needed and the Food Matters Aotearoa lineup

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date?

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part three

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

The public and new research: peer review, initial reports and responses to extraordinary claims