Genome editing in post-Brexit agriculture: Which way for the UK?

Union flag made of farm produce

Angela Noland, Dominic Glover and Adrian Ely

In less than a month’s time, the UK’s relationship with the European Union will change dramatically. Agriculture and food will be among the biggest areas affected – from production methods and supply routes to labelling and product standards. A lot will depend on the outcomes of trade negotiations. One important issue concerns the future regulation of genetic engineering in food and agriculture.

Genome editing is a novel genetic engineering technology that has many potential applications in crop breeding programmes. Enthusiasts are convinced that genome editing is improving the speed and efficiency of crop improvement, thus reducing the price and increasing the availability of better crop varieties. This could help farmers to improve productivity, adapt to climate change and grow crops in more sustainable ways.

As with preceding generations of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there is a lack of global consensus concerning the risks and safety of genome edited crops, and how they should be regulated. New Zealand and the EU have adopted cautious approaches, while several other countries, including the USA and Japan, have taken a more permissive stance.

What happens next?

With Brexit, the UK stands at a crossroads. Having taken the irrevocable decision to leave the EU, the country is still working out what to do next. Uncertainty pervades the entire British economy, including food, agriculture, technology and regulation. The potential for genome edited crops to be grown on British farms, sold in British supermarkets and exchanged with the country’s trading partners is up in the air.

Poster for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), near Richmond, Yorkshire in 2016. By summonedbyfells / Flickr / cc-by 2.0

The choice made by the UK could have implications beyond the country’s borders too.

Trade is a critical factor shaping Britain’s deliberations over agriculture, food standards and technology. The UK imports half the food it consumes, with 30% of its supply by value coming from the EU, 4% from Africa, 4% from North America, 4% from South America, 4% from Asia, 2% from the rest of Europe and 1% from Australasia. Before 2016 (the year of the Brexit referendum), over 70% of UK food and drink exports, worth almost £10 billion, went to EU countries.

If these exports into the European single market are to continue, UK producers will be obliged to meet product standards that are acceptable to EU regulators. Until today, the UK has followed EU rules that govern genetic engineering in agriculture and food, but now the country is breaking its existing trade ties and seeking to forge new ones. The British government insists that the country’s high food and environmental standards will not be bargaining chips. The political reality is that the quest to agree new trade pacts is likely to put the UK’s regulations on agricultural and food products onto the negotiating table.

What will a UK/USA deal mean for food standards?

The UK government is eager to sign a new trade agreement with the USA, but opening formal negotiations has proved slow and difficult. The USA demands that the UK must accept its food standards as a condition of any trade deal. This would mean liberalising the import of genetically engineered food products, chlorine-washed poultry and hormone-treated beef – something that would put British farmers at a competitive disadvantage unless the UK adopted similar farming and food processing methods and technologies. Doing so would create an obstacle for UK–EU trade, since the EU insists that both sides should commit to maintaining “health and product sanitary quality in the food and agriculture sector” as a key condition.

This is the crux of the dilemma for the UK: if the country accepts US food standards in order to secure a deal with that country, it could, in the process, damage a relationship with the EU, its most important trading partner. A trade deal that foundered on irreconcilable agri-food standards would be a blow for the British economy, as the EU accounted for 43% of all UK exports (£294 billion) and 52% of all UK imports (£374 billion) in 2019. This is roughly three times the £200 billion of goods exchanged between the UK and US.

There are real fears that dismantling British food regulations, in order to secure a UK–US trade agreement, would favour American farmers and food companies. The UK’s National Farmers’ Union worries that opening British markets to imports of cheaply but unsustainably produced food from the USA would trigger the collapse of many existing farms in the UK.

Faced with this situation, in the context of a global pandemic that has caused some companies and governments to doubt the resilience of complex, long-distance supply chains, it may seem rational and prudent for the UK to maintain, as far as possible, favourable trading arrangements with its closest neighbours and most important trading partners. However, this would conflict with the convictions of activists who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU.

For some supporters of Brexit, the freedom to embrace new technologies, including genetic engineering, is a big motivation for leaving the EU’s regulatory regime. These pundits believe that EU rules stifle innovation. According to them, the UK should embrace genome editing in agriculture, and other novel technologies, in order to leap into the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), impose a British stamp upon it, and reap the benefits of technological dominance for decades to come. Boris Johnson’s first speech as prime minister in 2019 included calls to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules” and “develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”.

As the historian David Edgerton has pointed out, visions of exceptional British innovative genius hark back to an imaginary history of Britain, and to the nationalist and export-promoting industrial policies of the two decades that followed the Second World War. Then, British elites clung to a belief that the UK should and still could aspire to be an economic, military, scientific and technological superpower. Today’s calls for the British state to support advanced technologies as stepping stones to prosperity and global influence ignore the reality that the UK did not really reap similar benefits after making huge, state-supported investments in nationalist technological projects of the 1950s and 1960s, such as commercial and military jet aircraft and nuclear power technologies.

While the UK certainly has an excellent scientific research capacity and numerous innovative companies, Edgerton points out that they are not globally exceptional, and anyway they are no longer really national. This holds true for the UK’s undoubted capacity in agricultural science and technology. Agronomic research and development are conducted by internationally networked research institutes and centres. The most important items of intellectual property are generated or snapped up by large agribusiness companies that are not national entities but transnational ones.

Relationships with countries in Africa

Will the stance of the UK on genome editing in crops and foods make much difference to countries besides the UK itself? New British trade policies could change flows of agricultural goods within Europe and across the Atlantic, but what about “third countries”, especially producers in sub-Saharan Africa that currently export agricultural products to British supermarkets?

UK-Africa Investment Summit | Paul Kagame | Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 2.0) |

The British government is trying to expand its trade and investment relationships across Africa. It hosted a UK–Africa Summit in January 2020 for precisely this purpose. However, even if such efforts are successful, it is highly unlikely that the UK alone would ever overtake the EU as Africa’s main trade partner in food and drink commodities.

While a decision by the UK to embrace genome editing in agriculture might influence particular African countries that send significant food exports to Britain, British policy will probably not have as much influence in general for African countries as would a possible change in policy on genome editing by the EU.

In any case, African policy makers might choose to differentiate between food crops that are grown for export markets in Europe (including the UK), where genome editing could present a commercial obstacle, and other food crops that are typically grown for domestic consumption or export within the region, or non-food crops (including animal feeds) that are not restricted from entering the EU or UK at present.

If the UK moves from regulatory alignment with the EU to a realignment with the USA, it will likely be interpreted as a symbolically important moment in the global politics of genetic engineering in food and farming. Yet, as a net importer and a relatively small player in global agriculture and agricultural exports, the UK’s decisions are unlikely to make a very big difference, in practical terms, to the global political economy of agricultural biotechnology.

Challenges within the UK

While the UK government’s policy choices on genome editing in food and agriculture could make a difference to European and transatlantic trade flows, the biggest challenges will lie within the UK itself. A change in policy will create significant disruption for Britain’s agricultural and food businesses, and for consumers.

Downward pressure on profit margins in UK farming, along with new restrictions on flows of migrant labour in agriculture, could stimulate the uptake of labour-saving technologies, but the short- and medium-term adjustment costs will be substantial.

There would be opportunities and dangers for different players. Some existing producers would likely struggle to survive, while importers of food produced cheaply elsewhere, under less stringent environmental rules, would enjoy new opportunities.

A more liberal regulatory regime might enable UK farmers to cut costs in order to compete, but adoption of labour-saving technologies may come at the cost of fewer jobs, fewer and larger farms, and a bigger environmental footprint.

Specific applications of genome editing could allow breeders to improve crops and food products, or enable farmers to shrink the ecological impact of cultivation. In theory, a new regulatory regime might be enacted that would encourage such applications, while discouraging kinds of genome editing that do not produce a social or ecological benefit.

However, even if such a careful framework could be designed and enforced, there would be a trade-off if, as a consequence, UK food exporters were to lose access to European markets. In that regard, the UK’s future stance on genome editing in agriculture could depend more heavily on a possible change in European policy, than on the UK’s own strategic aspirations.

As it happens, a European Commission review of the EU’s regulatory framework governing novel genomic breeding techniques in agriculture and food is already under way. Its findings must be reported before the end of April 2021. Some observers believe that the Commission is keen to adopt a more permissive stance on genome editing, with support from some EU member states and European scientific institutes.

Whether EU decision makers will decide to loosen the rules remains to be seen. Doing so might provoke resistance from European consumers and environmental groups. But a move in that direction by the EU might, among other effects, ease a trade policy dilemma for the UK.

About the authors

The authors are members of the Policy Hub of the Genome Editing and Agricultural Policy, Practices and Public Perceptions (GEAP3) network.

This blog is based on a draft paper written by Angela Noland for the GEAP3 Mentoring Programme.

Angela Noland is a researcher affiliated with the Institute of Development Studies and the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Dominic Glover is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. Adrian Ely is a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex.