DEFRA'S enthusiastic embrace of gene editing crop technology has been the subject of withering scrutiny by the House of Lords, which has described the lack of detail in the plan to legalise field trials as 'astonishing' and 'unsatisfactory'.

First and foremost, the Lords criticism focusses on the UK government's decision to make a major change to its policy on genetically modified organisms via secondary legislation, rather than through a Bill in its own right, which would have allowed 'thorough and robust' scrutiny by Parliament.

But the Lords also took issue with the scant detail in the draft Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022, noting that it does not offer any guidance on the criteria by which modified plants would be judged safe to plant outdoors.

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Proponents of gene editing have described it as a less extreme version of genetic modification, using only genes from within any given species' genome, and thus achieving results that could have occurred naturally, albeit doing so far quicker than selective breeding could achieve.

Concerns over the use of terms such as 'occurred naturally' were raised during a public consultation and in submissions the Lords Committee received, showing a high level of uncertainty about how the new category of 'qualifying higher plant' would be assessed and by whom.

Committee chair, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, said: "Since Defra has told us that the intention is for the changes proposed by this instrument to be the first step of a wider reform programme, the House might have found it helpful for their scrutiny to have been given some detail of the future direction of travel the government proposes to follow in this important area.

“The proposals are of significant public interest, as indicated by critical submissions sent to the Committee and the significant number of responses to the consultation Defra conducted," said Lord Hodgson. "With guidance on the new rules still under development, the draft Regulations raise questions about their practical implementation including how qualifying higher plants will be assessed, the reliance on self-declaration and the absence of prescribed safeguards and containment measures.

"Given that the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms are both complex and controversial, Defra surely should have anticipated that there would be considerable public interest in this instrument. Accordingly it seems astonishing that the guidance on these new rules has not been made available for scrutiny alongside the regulation."

In its argument for deregulation, Defra has stated that it does not believe that field trials involving gene edited plants would lead to any more risk of environmental or economic damage than traditionally bred plants, and that safeguards or containment measures would be the responsibility of whoever was developing or releasing the GMO into the environment.

The Lords Committee noted that GM trial containment was an area of particular concern to organic farmers, and suggested that Defra should consider conducting an evaluation of the practical application of the new rules and of any environmental or economic damage before pressing ahead with further loosening on the restraints on GM tech.

It also voiced concern that, given that the new rules would only apply to England, collaboration between researchers in different parts of the UK could be negatively affected – and 'remained unconvinced' by Defra’s assertion that the regulatory difference with both Wales and Scotland will not cause any issues.