Brexit could spell exit from stringent anti-GMO rules

By Justin Cremer

September 6, 2018

Like most United Kingdom citizens, English farmer Andrew Osmond lives with a certain sense of uncertainty brought on by Brexit.

The decision of UK voters to withdraw from the European Union will affect residents in myriad ways, but for farmers like Osmond the process may provide an unexpected opportunity. While the UK has no formal ban on cultivating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), its place within the Single Market has meant that UK farmers have had to accept Europe’s stridently anti-GMO position if they wanted to sell to their nearest neighbors.

With Brexit, farmers like Osmond may be able to employ the types of GM seeds that their American counterparts have been using successfully for years.

Andrew Osmond. Photo: Robert Hazen
Andrew Osmond

“One of the things we’ve missed out on in the UK is the whole GMO revolution,” Osmond recently told the Alliance for Science. “The UK has just had to accept the EU ban on GMOs but Brexit gives us an opportunity to move away from the precautionary principle that has really governed us through the EU and toward a more evidence-based science.”

Formally divorcing from the EU will give UK farmers “a real opportunity to trade again with the rest of the world,” Osmond added.

Osmond has been farming all of his life and describes farming “as the best job I’ve ever had and quite literally the only job I’ve ever had.” He primarily grows wheat, barley and rapeseed but has also grown hemp for fiber and even poppies for morphine production.

He said that a more accepting GMO policy is not the only potential advantage that Brexit presents for UK farmers.

“All my farming life, we’ve been part of the EU’s Common Market, which is a subsidy-based system that in my option has stifled innovation in farming,” he said. “There’s a real opportunity to use the technologies that are available that we haven’t got access to yet in the UK to increase productivity and have less impact on smaller areas.”

One innovation that Osmond is particularly excited about is gene editing, which he calls “a very bright spot on the horizon.”

“CRISPR/Cas9 is coming and there’s a gold rush in labs around the world to enhance this technology. I think that as long as it’s explained carefully to farmers, they will be open to gene editing because it is a continuation of the plant breeding that we’ve been using for hundreds of years,” Osmond said. “It’s just speeding the process up a bit and I think if we have that explained to us in a rational way with evidence, farmers in the UK will be open to that technique.”

Osmond blames resistance to GMOs and gene editing in part on what he calls “a food paranoia” that is a result of Western wealth and privilege.

“It seems like the less we pay for our food, the more we worry about it. In the West, we spend around 10 percent of our monthly salaries on food, whereas in the developing world it is still somewhere around 30 to 50 percent,” he said. “So we’ve got a situation where we worry a lot about things that we didn’t used to. You know, a hungry person has one problem while a well-fed person has a thousand.”

One problem we all have, regardless of income, expenditures or our location in the world, is climate change and how it will affect food production. Although he is deeply worried that “time is running out,” Osmond said that he and other UK farmers are doing everything they can to mitigate climate change.

“There’s a real move to conservation agriculture in the UK now, which we’re being encouraged to do by our government as part of ‘a green Brexit’ — whatever that means,” he said. “But if we as humans are really serious about staying on this planet and looking after it, we have to change. We have to use all the technology, all the innovation that we can access. It’s just that simple.”

Despite the daunting challenge, Osmond said that British farmers have risen to the occasion before and can do it again – provided that there is “another type of climate change.”

“We’ve got climate change as a serious global issue but we also need a climate change of attitudes and we need to re-learn how to learn,” he said. “I look at farmers in England who are superb farmers and incredibly good at what they do. They now have an opportunity to recapture their creativity and try new things, or at least be susceptible to a re-education of sorts and really have a go and be engaged.”