Editing Devolution

The attack on food standards and transparency is an attack on democracy.

As Pat Thomas has written: “On the first day of his premiership, Boris Johnson vowed to “liberate” genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming and food from stuffy EU regulations. The declaration was a little vague on details but was widely viewed as a Brexit win; a very public display of how different modern Britain’s goals and aspirations are from those of the stuffy old EU.”

As we enter a multi-dimensional food crisis the reality is very different; a bonfire of food regulations and a direct attack on the basic tenets of devolution.

This week the UK government introduced its Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which it says will “remove unnecessary barriers to research into new gene editing technology”, one of the great benefits of Brexit it claimed.

The Scottish Government was ‘urged’ to back the new UK law on gene editing, with environment secretary George Eustice promising it will “tackle the challenges of our age”. Eustice pleaded with the government in Edinburgh to overcome their reluctance and back the relatively new technology. George Eustice and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack wrote to the First Minister and Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon ‘inviting’ the Holyrood government to “join us in taking forward this legislation”.



But the Scottish Government has long had a different policy on genetic modification and have rejected the approach pointing out that this is another example of the way the ‘Internal Market’ is a direct attack on devolution and democracy. The Scottish government said it ‘remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Act and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of devolved powers’, while the Welsh government has insisted it will not comply with Westminster’s interference.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said that it notes that the UK Government is introducing a bill “to amend the definition of a GMO [genetically modified organisms] in England” and that it would not accept having that imposed on Scotland.

“The UK Government’s invitation to participate in the bill comes without them having shared the content with us, and we will therefore need to scrutinise it carefully to consider the implications for Scotland,” the spokesperson said.

Part of this legislation is part of the inevitable deregulation resulting from Brexit. There was even a brief backlash against the plans to sell gene-edited foods unlabelled in UK supermarkets. Even the Daily Mail frothed: “Fury erupted today over Government plans to allow gene-edited foods to be sold unlabelled in British supermarkets — as Scotland and Wales both vowed to reject the move.”

Despite the stated benefits the policy is widely discredited across Europe and opposed by environmental bodies across the UK.

Soil Association policy director Jo Lewis said: “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.”

Lewis added: ”Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place. History has proven that GM only benefits a minority of big businesses with a major rise in controlling crop patents and unwelcome, profitable traits such as herbicide-resistant weeds.”

The RSPCA are also opposed to the legislation. The charity’s head of public affairs, David Bowles, said the introduction of the bill was ‘incredibly disheartening and frustrating’ from an animal welfare perspective. He said there were “more ethical and humane ways” to solve issues in the farming industry “without pushing farm animals even further towards their physical limits”.

“The animal welfare impact of directly altering an animal’s genetic material can be unpredictable and we simply do not know the long-term consequences.”

Scottish Food Sovereignty

This issue of ‘long-term consequences’ is the key for the Scottish Government which has evoked the ‘precautionary principle’. In 2013 the Scottish Government laid out the following principles which guided their policy:

The precautionary principle – insufficient evidence has been presented that GM crops are safe.

The preventative principle – the cultivation of GM crops could tarnish Scotland’s natural environment and damage wider aspects of the Scottish economy such as tourism and the production of high quality, natural food

The democratic principle – science-based decision making cannot replace the will of the people. There is no evidence of a demand for GM products by Scottish consumers.

The fact that the Scottish government has put together these sound, well-reasoned principles to guide their opposition gives us real hope that Scotland can be a strong voice against the pro-GM lobby in the years to come, and we can focus our attention on building a sustainable food system for the next generation. But the very idea of Scotland charting a different path was the cause of apoplexy by many journalists and politicians.

Far from Scotland being some kind of parochial outlier, in our GM policy we had in fact joined a global resistance. India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption. Only four African nations—South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan permit the commercial use of products that contain G.M.O.s. Other countries involved in bans and restrictions throughout the world include: Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil and Paraguay.

Food standards are not just an issue for obscure policies and technical details, they are the basis for our health and wellbeing they are the basis for our food sovereignty. Without food sovereignty – without control over what our children eat – we are nothing. And this battle lands in a country where there are already massive and growing issues about poverty, health and wellbeing, and in which Scotland in particular faces huge challenges about our dietary health.

In a country in which millions are already reliant on foodbanks, further price-rises and disruptions are going to hugely exacerbate inequality.

As Ash Sarker explained back in 2018: “Hard Brexit has never been about sovereignty – it’s about creating a legislative bonfire to decimate protections enshrined in law, and hold the UK hostage to corrupt corporate interests.”

Hard Brexit as a form of hyper-nostalgia is the emergent form, a new isolationism in a country that already has a disastrous relationship with food. In a country that has concentrated the food system into the hands of a handful of companies, that has a population more divorced from land, nature, seasonality and place than almost anywhere else in Europe, and that already has staggering food poverty and insecurity, Brexit-food shortages aren’t arriving into a context of resilience, balance and plenty. They arrive into a context of childhood obesity, diabetes and deep cultural ignorance.
The reason that protecting food policy is important to Scotland is interesting. On the one hand we have some of the greatest natural resources in food and an image of food that we can project and build on. But the flip-side of that is that we have huge issues about our diet, about our obsession with export growth, about our salmon industry, about our obesity epidemic, about our diet-related ill-health that we desperately need to confront.

Feeding Frenzy

Nor does this particularly virulent form of sado-populism derive from the popular will as routinely claimed. This isn’t happening with the momentum of The People but with organised groups with direct economic interest. On food standards and regulations there’s a feeding frenzy of right-wing think-tanks queuing up to divvy-up your rights to good (or at least nominally safe) food. As the dearth of foreign workers leaves crops rotting in the ground the glee with which policy makers are eyeing-up the potential profits of a free trade agreement is undeniable.

As long ago as 2018 the environmental group Unearthed revealed the reality of the Anglo-American trade deal after a transatlantic network of conservative think tanks accidentally published its secret plans to influence US-UK trade negotiations. They revealed: “Documents outline plans to form an “unprecedented” coalition of hard-Brexit and libertarian think tanks, which will call for Britain to ditch strict EU safety standards – including rules on food and pharmaceuticals – in order to secure a sweeping US-UK trade deal.”

A report by the Soil Association highlighted 10 concerns about food safety in a post-Brexit era. These concerns include:

  1. Chlorine-washed chicken (banned in the EU).
  2. Hormone-treated beef (banned in the EU).
  3. Ractopamine in pork (banned in the EU).
  4. Chicken litter as animal feed (banned in the EU). Includes the birds’ faeces.
  5. Atrazine-treated crops (banned in the EU). Atrazine is a herbicide used on 90% of sugar cane, which can enter into the water supply and interfere with wildlife.
  6. Genetically modified foods (banned in the EU).
  7. Brominated vegetable oil (banned in the EU). BVO is used in citrus drinks; Coca-Cola announced it would stop using BVO in 2004.
  8. Potassium bromate (banned in the EU). A dough conditioner also banned in China, Brazil and Canada, in tests on rats it has been found to be a possible carcinogen.
  9. Azodicarbonamide. A bleaching agent for flour, it has been linked to an increase in tumours in rats.
  10. Food colourants (banned in the UK, regulated in the EU). Can lead to hyperactivity in children.
This is your Brexit Recipe Book. This is what your cupboards and your super-market shelves will be brimming with if Britain’s corporate ambition gets its wishes. This is a new era of hunger and food madness.

Genetically Modifying Devolution

As Pat Thomas has pointed out: “This week, after more than a year of hard push, the government laid down the first draft of its Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill, which aims to remove almost all regulatory controls, including comprehensive risk assessment, from genetically engineered crops, livestock and foods.”

But if post-Brexit Britain is a disaster for transparency about food and food regulations it’s also a direct attack on devolution.

George Eustice, the UK environment secretary, has this week written to the first ministers of Wales and Scotland, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, inviting them to adopt the bill’s measures.

Eustice told BBC Scotland this week that if they did not do so, they could still refuse to allow GMO crops to be planted. However, under the current proposals, they would not be allowed to stop GMO products being sold in Scotland or Wales under the terms of the Internal Markets Act.

Preventing people knowing what food they are eating is dystopian and profoundly un-democratic, it is an attack on devolution and an attack on basic human rights to know what you are eating.

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  1. 220530 says:

    Farmers have used precision breeding (as distinct from genetic modification) to manage the their crops since agriculture began. Those plants and animals we eat didn’t just evolve by natural selection; they’re largely human artefacts. Freeing up the practice to further research and democratic debate isn’t a bad thing. We should, however, beware of scaremongering within that debate.



  2. Mark Bevis says:

    The only reason this is on the table is because some body somewhere can make money out of it. Adding more complexity to society just for the sake of it, well, we know how that will end.

    Food growing should be left to those who know how to do it sustainably, not to big-pharma, big-farming industry, physicists and engineers.

    In some ways it doesn’t matter anyway, you can’t do agriculture in an unstable climate

    1. 220530 says:

      There’s no ‘should’ about it. If, as you say, future climate change will return planet Earth to the unstable climatic conditions of the Pleistocene, making agriculture impossible, human society will once again be characterised by hunting and gathering. All we can do is take to the hills and prepare as best we can to survive the coming apocalypse.

      That’s an awfie big and contentious ‘if’ though.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Mark Bevis, an unstable climat is presumably one of the reasons that George Monbiot has written about supplying the bulk of human diets through lab-grown foods; also since farming globally contributes so much to climate change, biodiversity loss (and animal suffering):

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        Ah, the lovable George. Whilst I generally read a lot of George’s stuff, using technology in an energy constrained world is just hopium, so I had avoided that one. A gentle critique of this article appears in Wicked Leeks

        but I’ll unpack just the lead paragraph of George’s article by capitalising the bits that require energy, usually electricity, either to make things or to power:

        Through a porthole in a METAL tank, I could see a yellow froth CHURNING. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen EXTRACTED from water as its energy source. When the froth was SIPHONED through a TANGLE OF PIPES and SQUIRTED on to HEATED rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

        If anyone thinks that process is sustainable they are deluded. It is an article of faith. The article isn’t wrong, and a pleasant read, and I am sure some will try the vatfeed system. It is a feature of collapse that the higher echelons of society will try their hardest to maintain & increase their current standard of living come what may, regardless of the cost of energy and materials.

        When looking at any “solution”, critical thinking is required by analysing the embedded energy cost of whatever the solution is. In the same way that propenents of nuclear ignore the embedded fossil fuel costs of a) building the damn thing , b) uranium or other fuel mining costs and transportation, and c) maintenance and cooling, George is ignoring the embedded energy costs of building all those vats and pipes etc, then processing the vatfeed into an edible form. It’s an industrialisation of our food to an unbelievable level that sends shudders down my spine, Solent Green without the human parts.

        Humans appear to have great difficulty in getting over how fossil fuels are embedded in EVERYTHING we do currently, and fossil fuels are coming to an end. Not because we’ve run out (only half has been used) but because the rest is so damned inaccessible and therefore expensive to extract, to the point where it will cost more in energy and money to extract than is obtainable – EROEI (energy return on energy invested) is the key number to look up. Once your EROEI drops to 5:1 or less you may as well go hunter gathering, it’ll be more efficient.

        We are, as Nate Hagens talks about, energy blind.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Mark Bevis, I found the first linked article at the site (the link did not work) but it fell far short of a rebuttal. Sure, I don’t agree with some of Monbiot’s views (such as his fondness for nuclear fission), but I have seen the vat technology reported on elsewhere. If they can get it to work, it will be extremely resource-efficient, and I don’t see how it will be difficult to find stainless steel vats and the necessary heat, water etc. The idea is not to replace all human diet, just (as I understand it) flour and eggs perhaps. Then supplement this with vegetables (which can also be grown soil-free). I have heard that Sweden has a functioning hydrogen steel plant now: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/aug/19/green-steel-swedish-company-ships-first-batch-made-without-using-coal
          Frankly, I wonder why industrial (and cruelty free) replacements for flour and eggs should trigger a shudder. I think we should be more worried about flour-crop harvests failing and concerned about the welfare of hens.

      2. Mark Bevis says:

        Sleeping Dog, I did a reply and the spam-bots deleted it, or have held it, due to it having links in.

    3. Yes Mark, its just the latest version of the endless variation of an inability to face change.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed, ‘precision breeding technologies’ is just a marketing term. Computer engineering is far more precise than genetic tinkering, and occurs in more controlled environments, yet virtually every significant program is expected to have bugs: that is, unintended, typically dysfunctional and perhaps harmful effects, some of which only occur in specific interactions, and may take years to be discovered.

    GMOs are often evaluated by the wrong science for public release: did the intended change to the organism occur, rather than what effects the changes might bring about after exposure to the environment, that is ecological sciences should be the priority. And vastly accelerating the arms race amongst plants and animals and fungi, when we have not yet even understood soil science sufficiently, is exceptionally reckless and dangerous. Food security requires building stability, redundancy, resilience, not injecting our ecosystems with volatile biocode. It really doesn’t matter if 99.99% of ‘precision’ GMO releases are ‘safe’ if one causes the death of grass or the collapse of bee populations.

    Yet the CRISPR process itself has error rates. And yes, corporations are corrupt and corners will be cut, test data will be faked and government funding for regulation will never be sufficient. And nobody will be able to clean up this mess, or likely ever held accountable for it.

    1. 220530 says:

      But ‘genetic modification’ is the same as ‘precision breeding’. Most of the plants and animals we eat are the product of precision breeding. Farmers have always, since agriculture began, targeted specific parts in the genome to achieve individual breeding goals in pursuit of higher yields; they just didn’t know what they were doing because, until Gregor Mendel came along, they didn’t have the science. The science of trait inheritance of ‘genetics’ now allows breeders to achieve their individual breeding goals much faster and with greater precision – and without having to alter genetic material using genetic engineering techniques (‘genetic modification’), but only by means of the natural recombination that occurs in mating (‘precision breeding’).

      I suspect this difference is being here obfuscated for political reasons; i.e. to bash the Tories.

      (BTW I though ‘biocracy’ was all about giving experts in the biological sciences a greater say in our public decision-making.)

    2. 220530 says:

      If you follow the link a gave above, you’ll find Prof Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology and Director of The Roslin Institute, saying:

      “The Precision Breeding Bill is great news for science. It is also great news for the diverse societies across our planet that benefit from the UK’s research and innovation.

      “The opportunity offered by precision breeding to directly tackle food security and the many health challenges that we collectively face, is huge. This opportunity comes with responsibilities. We all want safe and appropriate food. We want the secure supply of food. We need to ensure the health and welfare of the many animals we farm while reducing the environmental footprint caused by agriculture. We want to sustain biodiversity and our rural communities in a fair manner. Precision breeding technologies can contribute to all these aspects addressing planet resilience.

      “At the Roslin Institute we pioneer precision breeding applications across all farmed animal species with focus on mitigating external stresses farmed animals face. Indeed these stresses are not that distinct from ourselves, with disease resilience top of the list. The Precision Breeding Bill will better enable Roslin’s research, and that of colleagues across the UK research & innovation community, to provide leadership in this exciting field.”

      But, of course, according to Mike’s article, the Scottish government should reject the UK government’s invitation to adopt the Precision Breeding Bill’s measures, not because of the (Scottish) science, but because it’s supposedly an attack on devolution.

      1. “But, of course, according to Mike’s article, the Scottish government should reject the UK government’s invitation to adopt the Precision Breeding Bill’s measures, not because of the (Scottish) science, but because it’s supposedly an attack on devolution.”

        Not at all, I laid out the prior conditions and principles that had guided SG policy on this, and pointed out that we are in no way an outlier in Europe taking this approach. I then pointed out separately that very basic principles of devolution are clearly under attack by the Internal Market bill and the consequences of Brexit.

        1. 220531 says:

          Of course, the Scottish government is well within its rights under the current devolution arrangements to have a different policy on genetic modification (or, indeed, on precision breeding, which is what the Westminster bill is about) and to refuse the invitation of the UK government to harmonise their respective policies notwithstanding the endorsement of the ‘English’ position enjoys Scottish scientists and farmers.

          Maybe the Scottish government will be less prejudiced against participating with the Auld Enemy once it’s had the opportunity to scrutinise the published bill and evaluate its provisions against the stated principles by which it determines its own policy.

          It would be ridiculous were the Scottish government to cut off its nose to spite its face on the basis of a misconception that confuses precision breeding with genetic modification and a general ignorance of the bill itself.

      2. Paddy Farrington says:

        You’ll also find Prof David Rose, Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems at Cranfield University, giving the following much more nuanced appraisal:

        “Gene editing has the medium-term potential to address food production and environmental challenges – for example, creating crop varieties that are higher yielding, with better nutritional benefits, and that are more tolerant to pest and disease, reducing fuel and chemical usage. However, there are legitimately held concerns about the potential for gene editing to consolidate power inequalities in the food supply chain, ethical concerns particularly about usage in animals, and the potential to facilitate greater intensification of farming which could harm the environment. All points of view need to be considered in the pursuit of development and regulatory principles that foster responsible innovation. Due to the time needed to pass legislation, consider a wide range of views, and produce and sell seeds to farmers, it is not a short-term fix to the cost of production crisis facing farmers. The Defra Chief Scientific Adviser in January said it was five years away.”

        I think it is perfectly reasonable for the Scottish Government to take a very cautious approach on these matters, given the importance to Scotland’s economy of its reputation for high quality food production, and of continued access to the EU market.

        Reading the other contributions on the Science Media Centre’s website, I am struck by how many of them see this as heralding the lifting of restrictions on genome modification. Clearly, for many involved in this science and industry, this is the thin end of a big fat wedge.

        1. 220601 says:

          Professor Rose makes an important point about resisting the monetisation of the technology involved and the consolidation thereby of existing power inequalities in the food supply chain. He’s right in that, to foster socially responsible innovation in our agriculture, we shouldn’t forget this issue in the ongoing development of our post-Brexit regulatory regimes. In particular, we need to question as part of that development the use of patents to establish commercially useful monopolies in relation to the technology.

  4. Mark Bevis says:

    Looking at the Roslin Institute’s “What we do” page, it is a very human-centric approach, along the lines of ‘let’s improve the welfare of kept animals so humans have a better life’.
    It is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, whose objectives include:
    “….understanding and exploitation of biological systems” (link since deleted from government website)
    And that B&BSRC is funded by BEIS….

    Classic examples of humans thinking of themselves as separate from and in control of nature, which will be our downfall.

    The Roslin Institute would be far better gene-editing humans so that they don’t destroy nature for profit.

    1. 220530 says:

      Yep, bioscience is (like all knowledge) anthropocentric. As a human project, how could it be otherwise?

      And the very idea of ‘nature’, in all its various iterations, including that of ‘environment’, is a historical manifestation or expression of humanity. The idea that ‘nature’ and ‘man’ are separate – that nature isn’t a function of humanity and that humanity isn’t a function of nature – is a symptom of our alienation from our own labour and its products under capitalism. (As Marx put it: there is no external relation between ‘man’ and ‘nature’; the two are ‘internally related’ like the obverse sides of the same coin. Marx also theorised that the separation will be abolished under communism, which social condition he characterised as ‘nature humanised and humanity naturalised’.)

      The idea that (independent of our consciousness as this is structured by capitalist relations of production) there is a ‘nature’ apart from ‘man’ is just as absurd as the equally bourgeois notion that there is a ‘man’ apart from ‘nature’. So, why do you persist in opposing ‘man’ and ‘nature’? What’s your rationale for maintaining such a separation?

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        “So, why do you persist in opposing ‘man’ and ‘nature’? What’s your rationale for maintaining such a separation?”

        Not sure how you get to that interpretation.

        1. 220530 says:

          Well, for example, the whole essay to which you linked is premised on a distinction between ‘man’ and his ‘environment’ and places the former at odds with the latter. Maybe you disagree with this separation/false consciousness, but that would beg the question of why you linked to the essay in the first place.

          1. Mark Bevis says:

            “eg the question of why you linked to the essay in the first place.”
            to help show that agriculture isn’t possible in an unstable climate.
            it also references that at increased CO2 levels cognitive function declines. Considering the paper was written by an economist, it is a considerable achievement.

          2. 220530 says:

            Yep, Mark; and, like I said , that’s an awfie big and contentious ‘if’.

  5. Mark Bevis says:

    220530 stated “Yep, Mark; and, like I said , that’s an awfie big and contentious ‘if’. ”

    Contentious for you perhaps. There’s no if about it as far as the science I’ve seen says.

    1. 220531 says:

      Well, only some of the science, surely. The science of knowledge communities like the Roslin Institute clearly doesn’t impress you.

      All science is contentious. Only dogma gives the sort of certainty you claim.

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        Why should it? Just like nuclear weapons, SOME science should never be done. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

        Mess with nature and Gaia will mess you right back.

        1. 220531 says:

          But those are the very points of contention, Mark. Is the precision breeding of plants and animals ‘messing with nature’ (in the way that the genetic modification of plants and animals undoubtedly is)? And is ‘messing with nature’ – by precision breeding (i.e. ‘agriculture’) as compared to hunting and gathering, say; not to mention by objectifying nature as ‘nature’ and subjectifying man as ‘man’ – necessarily ‘a Bad Thing’?

          The whole survivalist ideology into which you’ve bought is highly dubious.

  6. Squigglypen says:

    Missing the point as usual. UK government trying to take control regardless of subject
    Independent Scotland would be able to poison herself as well as everybody else..but it would be our choice…
    Don’t get distracted…Self government like other nations…Independence….keep thinking that…
    Excellent article…..glad the Scottish government are doing their own thing.

    1. 220531 says:

      My country right or wrong… eh, Squiggly!

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