GMOs in the UK – where are we now?

In the UK, new field trials of GM crops including potato, broccoli, brassicas and a false flax plant that produces fish oil have just moved the GMO issue much closer to home.

July 30, 2019 by Samantha Burcher

Image: Bigstock

New developments in GM can sometimes seem very remote to those of us living in the UK.

In part that is because we have been protected by strict EU laws about the cultivation and sale of GM crops and foods.

Over the past twenty years or so commercial GM crops like the golden rice, which was supposed to fight blindness in in Africa and parts of Asia, but didn’t work, the rainbow papayas in Hawaii that contaminated 50% of non-GM papaya crop and the flavr-savr tomatoes designed to not over-ripen but rejected by consumers worldwide, have seemed too far away to be worrisome.

But this year, marks a turning point. New field trials of GM crops including potato, broccoli, brassicas and a false flax plant engineered to produce omega-3 fish oil in its seeds have just moved much closer to home.

This fresh round of GM field trials, taking place in the UK until 2023, have only recently gained approval from DEFRA – a signal that, post-Brexit, the UK is gearing up, once again to become a GMO nation.

Fish Oil in Flax

Rothamsted Research is growing Camelina sativa – a member of the brassica family commonly known as false flax – in Hertfordshire and Suffolk. The plant, which is similar in appearance to its cousin, the yellow-flowered oilseed rape, will be subjected to what has been referred to as a “pick and mix” approach to re-engineering, with over 100 different elements that could be inserted in to the trial crops in multiple different combinations.

The oil pressed from the seeds is intended as feed for farmed salmon.

Fish farming is big business, netting some £600 million a year in exports for Scotland’s fishing industry alone. But salmon are also top predators and their natural diet is smaller fish which are rich in a particular type of omega-3 oil known as DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid. Fish farms consume roughly 80% of all fish oil harvested from the oceans as fish, well beyond sustainable limits.

The GM camelina is intended to replace dwindling marine stocks in the farmed salmon’s diet. Researchers at Rothamsted estimate one hectare of GM camelina containing 12% DHA can produce as much DHA as approximately 10,000 fish.

But this misses the point that fish farms are inherently unsustainable and that using valuable land to grow food for them is an obscene waste of nutrients and calories that could be used to feed humans directly. As recipes for sustainability go, it’s neither wholesome nor nutritious.

Insect-resistant Broccoli

The John Innes Centre is growing a long stemmed Chinese variety of GM broccoli in Norwich. The researchers will be using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to make insertions or deletions of the Myb28 gene, a key compound in regulating the plant’s sulphur metabolism. Finding the right combination, they say, will help them understand how to enhance the plant’s ability to resist insect pests.

The trial is taking place close to farms that grow non-GM broccoli. Brassicas cross-pollinate fairly easily and there is concern that adequate safety measures have not been put in place to prevent contamination.

Super wheat?

A trial of GM wheat (Triticum aestivum) is also underway, the aim of which is to produce white flour with extra iron. Currently, white flour is fortified using iron powder or iron salts to regulation levels of 16.5 micrograms (mcg) per gram. But the researchers are looking for a way to alter the plant’s genome so that the majority of iron is transported form the bran (the outer shell) to the endosperm, the central, starchy part of the wheat seed, which is processed for white flour.

Modern wheat varieties are actually bred for yield rather than nutrition and as a result iron levels in them have dropped over the decades. From that perspective, high-iron wheat may sound like a good thing but this can also be achieved through conventional breeding that focuses on nutrition.

Objections to the trial also pointed out that the researchers cannot guarantee that the iron from the GM wheat will bioavailable (that is, well absorbed by the body) enough to make a difference to health.

What is more, as with the broccoli there is significant potential for the GM trial plants to cross pollinate with non-GM crops.

One potato, two potato, GM potato….?

It’s worth remembering that it was a GM potato that started the media storm over the safety of genetically modified foods in 1998. Dr Arpad Pusztai, at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, discovered intestinal abnormalities, suppressed immune systems and other health defects in rats fed GM potatoes gene encoded with a snowdrop protein. In his control study, the non-GM potato spiked with snowdrop left rats unharmed, only the combination of the snowdrop and the GM potato caused disease.

Now, Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich are trialling a new kind go GM potato in Suffolk and Cambridge. The Maris Piper plants have been gene edited to resist late blight and potato cyst nematodes and to improve tuber quality. A separate study hopes to reduce the potatoes acrylamide levels to prevent blackening when the potatoes are cooked at high temperatures and made into crisps and chips.

Give the people what they want!

In his first speech to the nation, on July 24th (and several times since) the UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made no secret of his support for more GM crops. His support has been echoed by some in the EU and, of course, by President Trump in the US. But this enthusiasm is completely out of step with what consumers want.

In fact, UK opinion polls consistently show public opposition to GM food:

  • BBC’s Countryfile asked viewers in 2012 if GM trials should be allowed to go ahead in the UK; 79% said no.
  • A 2014 YouGov poll found that 46% of adults had negative views about GM. In addition the number of adults who felt the UK government should not be promoting the adoption GMOs was 40% – nearly double the 22% in favour of such promotion.

The demand for transparency, choice and simply better quality food is borne out by the booming organic food sector, trust in Organic Certification schemes, the popularity and traceability of farmers markets, farm shops/box deliveries and major supermarkets expanding their organic ranges.

A people’s food revolution is well and truly underway!


  • If you believe that we have a right to know what we are eating, please sign our joint petition hosted by Beyond GM and GM Freeze calling on the UK government maintain strong regulation of new GMOs post-Brexit and continue to label GM-containing foods. Please sign and pass on to others who might be interested.
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