EIGHT in 10 people think that genetically modified foods on sale in British shops should be labelled as such – in a blow to UK Government plans.

The findings of a new poll come as Rishi Sunak’s government looks to legalise certain types of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and allow firms to sell them without any labelling or other identifying features.

Although the farming of such GMOs will only be legal in England, the Scottish Government will be powerless to stop them from being marketed north of the Border.

The Tories’ Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will create a new subset of GMOs, termed “precision bred organisms” (PBOs). These PBOs will be created using genetic editing technology, which was banned under EU law pre-Brexit.

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The UK Government has previously insisted that GMOs could never have occurred naturally, while PBOs could have. They said that PBOs will not need to be labelled as they are “indistinguishable from ­traditionally bred counterparts”.

However, polling from YouGov for the campaign group Beyond GM has found that a significant majority of people do not want PBOs to be sold unlabelled – with a plurality not wanting them in their food at all.

The YouGov poll of 1733 UK adults found that 79% of people thought that any PBOs should be “clearly labelled on the food package”. Just 5% agreed with the UK Government that such PBO products do not need to be labelled. 

A total of 83% said that any PBOs put on sale should “undergo safety testing” beforehand, while just 2% thought such testing would be unnecessary. 

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Elsewhere, 80% said that PBOs should undergo environmental assessments, while 79% said that such genetically edited organisms should be traceable throughout the farming and food chain.

The poll further found that clear pluralities of people did not want GMOs or PBOs in their food. A total of 44% said they would prefer GMOs not to be in their food, with 42% saying they did not want PBOs.

In contrast, just 3% of people said they would prefer to have GMOs and PBOs in their food.

The National: Ruth Watson said the campaign was not political

Commenting on the polling, Ruth Watson (above), who runs the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign, drew parallels between the UK Government’s policy and what has happened in the US.

“In America there was lots of evidence to show that people did not want GMOs in their food,” Watson told the National, “so the American government were like ‘that’s fine we’ll just hide it so you don’t have a choice’.”

She went on: “If you don’t label it, you can’t then research its health impacts. It’s much, much harder to find direct correlations and therefore find the evidence that either it is dangerous or, if you cared to look for it, that it is safe.

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“The big difference is that the EU has a ‘prove to me this is safe’ philosophy before [GMOs] can be used, in America it’s ‘prove to me it’s dangerous’. I’m much more the ‘prove to me this is safe’ route because food is the cornerstone of our health and wellbeing.”

Watson further warned that the legalisation of PBOs in England would make it “even harder” to export to the EU and could damage the “very high reputation that Scotland has around the world which is one of the reasons why our food exports are so sought after”.

Post-Brexit, Scotland is aiming to stay aligned with the European bloc on food regulations. However, laws in the Tories’ post-Brexit Internal Market Act mean that any genetically edited food created in England can be sold in the devolved nations – with the devolved governments powerless to stop it.

“Once the genie is out of the bottle you can’t put it back in again,” Watson said.

Pat Thomas, the director of the Beyond GM group which commissioned the YouGov research, said the Tories’ bill was “technically and scientifically flawed”.

Thomas went on: “It fails to take into account the longstanding unease and scepticism that UK adults express towards all kinds of GMOs, and it fails to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of UK farming, environmental and food laws.

“Peers now have an opportunity to give the bill the scrutiny it did not get in the Commons and to make the significant amendments that civil society is calling for, especially around labelling, traceability and environmental safety.”

The PBO bill – which was first introduced under Boris Johnson – passed its third reading in the Commons in late October, and gets its second reading in the Lords this week.

The YouGov poll was conducted between November 11 and 14, 2022.

The Scottish Government said that they had concerns about the plans not to label PBOs as such, and said stakeholders in Scotland should have their views respected. 

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has a number of concerns about the UK Government's Precision Breeding Bill and how this will impact on devolved matters, including as a result of the intention not to require labelling of precision bred products.

“The regulation of genetic modification is a devolved area of responsibility and the views of stakeholders in Scotland, including consumers, must be central to how those regulations apply to new genetic technologies such as gene editing.

“That includes stakeholders from the scientific community, stakeholders from across the spectrum of industry interests, and crucially, consumers and the public as a whole.”

The UK Government insisted that labelling would not be needed because there was “no safety risk” to PBOs.

It further said that PBOs do not count as GMOs, claiming they “can result in the sort of changes to DNA that are selected for and introduced in traditional breeding, or arise naturally”.