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At the height of the anti-GM movement, in 1999, the then head of Greenpeace UK, Peter Melchett, was charged with theft and criminal damage after scything down a field of genetically modified maize.
In a decisive victory for the anti-GM movement, Lord Melchett and 27 fellow activists were acquitted by a jury in what many took as a measure of the profound negative public sentiment towards GM technology.
More than 20 years on, as the government proposes relaxing regulations on gene-edited products, experts say the public view on the technology has, if not entirely warmed, at least softened.
“I think most people now have what I call the Catherine Tait view: ‘Am I bovvered?’,” said Prof Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a plant research institute based in Norfolk.
Scientists such as Jones welcome the new legislation that could pave the way for a host of technologically enhanced products from vitamin D-enriched tomatoes to anti-carcinogenic wheat. But experts also question whether the technology will really deliver the boost to food security and environmental benefits promised by the government.
One point of contention is the distinction between gene-edited products, which will be permitted, and genetically modified organisms, which will still be subject to strict legislation.
Newer gene-editing techniques – termed “precision breeding” in the bill – involve precise changes to single letters of the genetic code. Such changes can be achieved far less efficiently through years of cross-breeding.
But the legislation will not immediately open the way for first generation genetic modification (GM) techniques, which involve taking an entire gene from one plant and inserting it into another.
This concept was behind the unfounded term “Frankenfood” but has also delivered some of the most impressive results, such as a blight-resistant potato, known as piper plus, developed by Jones’s team.
The potato is identical to the maris piper, aside from three genes that make it resistant to late blight, which costs UK farmers tens of millions of pounds annually and requires farmers to spray fields more than a dozen times each year.
“I’m a bit uncomfortable with the way this has been presented to the public,” said Jones. “It comes across as saying ‘Don’t worry about this nasty GM because we can do what we want with this lovely gene-editing method’. It leaves intact the false impression that there’s anything wrong with GM.”
Jones said the bill may be a reasonable “tactical compromise” that could pave the way for a further relaxation of GM rules. “At least I’m hoping that’s what the government is thinking,” he added.
The distinction has also annoyed some environmental campaigners. “Gene editing is just a subset of GM,” said Kierra Box from Friends of the Earth. The charity, she said, maintained a “fundamental opposition” to genetic modification because it was not convinced the technology could deliver environmentally friendly solutions. “If we’re interfering with the genetic codes in nature, we don’t know how those things respond,” she added.
However, no one is anticipating activists tearing up fields of gene-edited wheat. Greenpeace, once staunchly opposed, does not offer a view on the bill when contacted. “It’s not one we’ve commented on, we haven’t done much work in the area recently,” a spokesperson replied in an email.
Another concern is that the legislation will apply only to England – the Scottish and Welsh governments, which have devolved control of such regulations, are opposed to changing the rules. Under current proposals, gene-edited products could only be developed by scientists and farmers in England, but sold throughout the UK, which could exacerbate political tensions and public opposition.
Complicated supply chains mean this also poses a “bit of a nightmare” logistically, according to Jones. For instance, a large proportion of the UK’s seed potatoes, which supply potato farms, are grown in Scotland because its colder climate makes them less susceptible to a pathogen called potato virus Y. Jones said his team was looking at whether gene editing could also make potatoes resistant to this virus. “We might have to GM our way out of it,” he said.
There is also a lingering question of where public opinion really lies.
Prof Cathie Martin, of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, said the anti-GM movement was, at heart, motivated by concerns about globalisation and that this conversation had moved on. “It was the way Monsanto tried to introduce GM crops into Europe without consultation and without proper understanding of European agriculture systems,” she said. “Since then we’ve had 9/11, a couple of major wars, the threat of climate change has come into focus. People view risks in different ways.”
Dr Pete Mills, an assistant director at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which is leading a consultation on public attitudes towards genetically modified products, said recent research – although there has not been much – suggested that “actually people don’t care very much about the technology”.
“What they care about is animal welfare, what the purpose is, who the benefits accrue to,” he said. The intention to extend the proposed legislation to cover gene-edited animals at a later date raises particular ethical concerns, Mills said, and may make the term “precision breeding” feel less reassuring. “The perception of conventional breeding, especially when it comes to animals, is that this has led to unsustainable outcomes,” he said.
Scientists such as Jones and Martin have pioneered GM technology to create crops that they argue could have substantial environmental and nutritional benefits. But there are less wholesome counter-examples, such as gene-edited “double muscled” pigs – meatier, but with other health problems.
“The legislation doesn’t really have any thought about the purposes for which these technologies are going to be used,” said Mills. “I think that’s problematic.”