The U.K. government has just finished a fact-finding discussion with the public called a “consultation,” aiming to decide whether crops genetically edited to have desirable new traits can be sold in the country without being labeled as GMOs, a highly charged acronym that stands for “genetically modified organisms,” which have long been banned in Britain and in the rest of Europe.
Currently, GMO products made from modified soybeans and corn have been widely grown and available for years in places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India, and other countries. In fact, GMOs account for the vast majority of U.S. soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beet crops—but those same crops are almost nonexistent in Europe, except when used to feed livestock.
Gideon Henderson, an Oxford University geochemist who represents the “pro” camp, is chief scientific advisor to the U.K. Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He said during an online panel in April held by a British NGO called the Sustainable Food Trust that gene editing will make crops more resilient in the face of climate change. “As climate warms, and as it already is, we’re seeing stress to our crop systems, particularly in the developing world,” he said. “Gene editing will help us build crops that can resist drought and thrive under heat stress.”
Henderson and others insist there is a difference between crops produced through gene editing and traditional GMOs. But such claims have raised hackles among anti-GMO scientists and activists who worry as much about the unexpected consequences from using relatively new genetic tools like CRISPR on food as they do about GMOs. “If [the U.K.] was to weaken its standards to match those of the United States, then it means that these genetically modified products can come into the U.K. unlabeled,” says Michael Antoniou, a professor of molecular genetics at King’s College London. “And therefore, the consumer would have no way of avoiding them. They’ll be denying the fundamental rights of people to buy and eat what they want.”
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