THE Tories are governing by diktat in their attempt to force through changes to the laws around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a Lords committee has suggested.

A new instrument, laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), proposes to remove the legal requirement to complete a risk assessment, consult the public, and ask for governmental consent before planting GMOs into the UK’s natural environment.

Instead, before planting a GMO in British soil, a firm would only have to email Defra and then publish that message.

The relaxed law would apply only to GMOs “which could have occurred naturally or been produced by traditional breeding”, but campaigners say this is a “mythical” subset which has not been clearly defined.

Beyond GM director Pat Thomas said: “The statutory instrument, which will alter the definition of a GMO in the UK’s Environmental Protection Act, is incoherent and full of loopholes.

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“It creates an entirely hypothetical subset of GMOs ‘that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding’ but fails to provide any guidance on how these mythical GMOs are to be assessed.”

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC), which published a report on Wednesday looking at Defra’s proposed changes to the law, echoed this view.

The SLSC said the Tory government had “not set out any scientific or regulatory criteria to assess whether a genetic modification or change in a plant could have occurred naturally”.

The peers also raised concerns around devolution, saying: “The Committee remained unconvinced by Defra’s assertion that the regulatory difference with both Wales and Scotland (neither of which will be introducing these changes) will not cause any issues for researchers or developers.”

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Robin Hodgson, a Tory peer and the chair of the SLSC, said the proposed change was so “significant” that it should have been dealt with by parliament and not secondary legislation. He said this was an issue explored in more detail elsewhere, pointing to a Lords report on “government by diktat”.

He went on: “Since Defra has told us that the intention is for the changes proposed by this instrument to be the first step of a wider reform programme, the House might have found it helpful for their scrutiny to have been given some detail of the future direction of travel the government proposes to follow in this important area.

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“The proposals are of significant public interest, as indicated by critical submissions sent to the Committee and the significant number of responses to the consultation Defra conducted.

“Given that the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms are both complex and controversial, Defra surely should have anticipated that there would be considerable public interest in this instrument. Accordingly it seems astonishing that the guidance on these new rules has not been made available for scrutiny alongside the regulation.

“We have asked the House to consider exploring these issues with the Minister.”

Tories such as MSP Rachael Hamilton, and the UK Government, have previously argued that genetic editing should be legalised as it creates “new varieties similar to those which would have been produced more slowly under traditional processes”.

Gene editing (GE) is slightly different from genetic modification (GM). While the latter involves inserting new genes into a DNA strand, GE involves the cutting and removing of undesirable parts of genes.

Neither technology is allowed under EU law, which classifies both as genetic modification. However, while the Scottish Government recently reiterated its determination to stay aligned with EU law on the issue, the UK Government wants to classify GM and GE separately, and allow GE in England.

The non-discrimination clause of the Internal Market Act would mean that any GE food grown in England could not legally be blocked from entering Scotland.

Thomas further said the UK Government had failed to take into account “the view of the thousands of citizens who responded to last year’s public consultation – 85% of whom said they wished to see gene-edited organisms continue to be regulated as GMOs”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) is currently developing guidance and we aim to publish this soon.

“Researchers will continue to be required to notify Defra of these plant research trials. For now, the commercial cultivation of these plants, and any food or feed products derived from them, will still need to be authorised in accordance with existing rules.”