‘Vested interests’ are driving legislation in Britain and on the continent, according to research by campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory 

EU lobbying and rule-making around genetically-modified food could be influenced by developments in the UK, campaigners have warned.

In a recent report, non-profit research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) accused EU-based scientists and researchers of “actively lobbying” for deregulation, while maintaining “direct or indirect vested and undisclosed interests in the marketing of plants derived from those techniques”.

“The lobby for deregulating new GM techniques should be taken seriously, based on what is happening in the UK, where government is in the process of removing regulatory controls around gene editing technology in food and farming,” said Claire Robinson, co-director of UK-based GM Watch and co-author of the report, which was commissioned by the Greens/EFA faction in the European parliament.

In the UK, a Genetic Technology Bill – applicable only to England – was introduced in May. That put the UK “ahead” of its EU counterparts, according to Robinson, with the European Commission still in an “impact assessment” phase on the issue.

But researchers at EU-level science bodies were also pushing for deregulation despite conflicts of interest, the CEO report alleged, listing bodies such as the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), the EU network for Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE) and the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA).

CEO researcher Nina Holland said “the loudest voices” included “biotech researchers that often have a conflict of interest, such as those that run the platform EU-SAGE, funded among others by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”.

Pat Thomas of Beyond GM, another British organisation, said “the same issue of vested interests that was uncovered in the EU report exists here in the UK”.

“The Food Standards Agency’s Novel Foods committee, which will decide if so-called precision-bred organisms should be labelled, is also drawn heavily from the biotech industry and, perhaps not surprisingly, is recommending the removal of consumer labelling,” Thomas said.

On Wednesday, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland published findings from a survey of “public attitudes toward precision-bred food”.

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The FSA/FSS said they found “low awareness of precision breeding” among the public but “a strong appetite to know more about the new technology and its use in food and animal feed production”.

“While the data reveals a general openness to trying precision-bred foods across the UK, with more people anticipating positive than negative impacts from its use, there are large proportions of people taking a neutral stance or indicating they do not know enough to answer the survey questions,” the FSA/FSS said.

One motivating factor for the UK’s interest in pushing for deregulation, Robinson said, could be to bring the UK’s food system “down to the same level as the US’s in order to secure a FTA [free trade agreement]” – an outcome she said would mean no safety checks for GMOs and “an absence of clear labelling for consumers”.

PM Liz Truss recently conceded a UK-US FTA remained a distant prospect, with negotiations unlikely “in the short to medium term”.

The US in mid-year urged Brits to adopt a more “science-based” approach to food imports, with Jewel Bronaugh, the deputy agriculture secretary, voicing “the need to overcome UK misperceptions about the quality and safety of US food and farm products” during a trade mission to London.

Proponents of GM foods argue they could bolster food availability in light of worldwide supply chain struggles, with fertiliser prices soaring since last year and the Russia-Ukraine war leading to price rises of staples such as wheat and sunflower oil.

Pointing to the widespread use of grains as biofuel, Robinson said there was “no shortage of food production”.

“On the contrary, there are surpluses of many crops, which is why prices paid to farmers are often painfully low, to the extent that many have gone out of business,” she said.

“Even if there were a shortage of food, it’s well established that GM crops have not increased yield,” she added.