GMOs AND BREXIT
Possibility of a deal with the EU will likely mean accepting current EU regulations governing GMOs in food for the foreseeable future, as changing food standards is politically difficult.
In the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, there may be a food crisis due to reduced import of food from the EU and increased checks on the border.
Cheese and other dairy products are likely to be one of the hardest hit food groups in this event.
Changing to a less restrictive system of GMO regulation may be a necessary part of forming trade deals with other countries.
Next year, on the 29th of March 2019, the UK will almost certainly leave the EU. This represents an enormous change for UK policy, both domestic and international. At the time of writing, there is no trade agreement or deal of any kind. Currently, this means that all current EU law and judgements from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (the ‘supreme court’ of the EU) will be converted into domestic UK law via a ‘great repeal bill’ (GOV.UK, 2018). From that point, the Government can make secondary legislation to amend, modify or repeal these laws. This leaves the regulations concerning the movement of people or goods totally up in the air. This includes the import of artisan cheeses.
Currently, the UK imports about 50% of the food it consumes, and of that 50%, 30% is from the EU (Rayner, 2018), (GOV.UK, 2018). In the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, this flow of food would be slowed by additional border-checks and extra documentation, and this disruption to supply chains could lead to a food crisis. Furthermore, there will be directly increased prices on food as the extra checks and certificates will cost a significant amount of money (Bakker and Datta, 2018). These added costs will likely be passed on to consumers, raising the price of food further.
As the government does not want to cause a food crisis, they may be forced to look to other countries to make up the food deficit. However, many countries that the UK could potentially trade with operate relaxed food standards.
For example, of the corn the US grows, 92% is GM (by acreage) (www.statista.com, 2018) and thus, if the UK intends to negotiate a trade deal with the US, it will likely be forced to adopt more permissive regulation regarding GM food (BBC News, 2018).
Current EU/UK law
Current UK law governing the use of GMO outside of the lab – including in food – is governed by two EU directives: Directive 2001/18/EC (governs deliberate release of GMOs into the environment) and Regulation (EC) 1829/2003 (governs the use of GM food and Feed). A brief overview of the political process for gaining authorisation to bring a GM food on to the market, based on our interview with the main regulatory agency of food safety within the EU, the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) (read more).
First, an application is submitted, showing that there are no adverse effects on human health, animal health or the environment; that the food is nutritionally equivalent to the food that it is intended to replace; and setting out plans for post-market monitoring, product labelling and methods for detecting the GMO to the competent authority in the relevant EU country. Then, the competent authority informs the EFSA. The EFSA then processes the application and an expert panel carries out a risk assessment. After the risk assessment is complete, the EFSA submits its opinion to the European Commission. Finally, the Commission presents its decision to the Member States Expert Committee (MSEC) and the MSEC holds a vote to either agree or disagree with the Commission’s decision. If they disagree, then the commission can appeal once. Assuming the MSEC agrees with the Commission’s decision, the commission adopts the decision and grants authorisation allowing the GMO to be brought to market (GMO authorisations for food and feed, 2018).
Current US law: a model for future UK law?
However, some countries have significantly more relaxed regulation governing GMO. For example, the US uses regulation that focuses on considering whether there is substantial equivalence between the GMO and the product that it intends to replace. This is not particularly involved and most GM crops are designated as “generally recognised as safe”. However, transgenic organisms require pre-market approval. This typically requires a safety assessment to show the GMO is safe. If the food safety assessment is satisfactory, the GMO is allowed onto the market (fda.gov, 2018).
UK future regulation
The current EU regulatory framework and the US regulatory framework represent opposite ends of a potential gradient of regulations that the UK could adopt post-Brexit. Currently, there have been no announcements of any policy change, but given that a change towards more lenient regulations is politically controversial, any change in policy will probably be driven by a need to secure other trading partners post Brexit. This means that the long-term future of GMO legislation in the UK is very hard to accurately predict and may hinge on whether or not a deal is reached with the EU.
Implications for our project
A recent study by the London School of Economics found that that there is the potential for dairy products to become luxury goods post-Brexit (Bakker and Datta, 2018). A large driver of this predicted price increase is the increased time spent at the border due to delays for checks that would be put into place if the UK ends up trading with the EU following World Trade Organisation rules (no deal Brexit). A passive way of checking food for contamination (such as our device) could reduce the time at the border and thus reduce the potential price increase in the event of a no deal Brexit.
However, this would imply EU countries using our device, which is unlikely considering the relatively restrictive EU law governing GMOs. Thus, more importantly, our device could address the increased need for a fast and cheap detection tool for a growing local artisan cheese industry within Britain (the status of Northern Ireland in this context is unclear), favoured by a considerably relaxed future regulatory climate. In general, our research indicates that this might be a good time for increased investment into potential synthetic biology food applications in the UK.