RSPCA Cymru is concerned that gene edited farm foods could soon find their way onto shelves in Wales – even if the Welsh Government doesn’t want to allow its production.

In England, the UK Government is consulting on allowing the gene editing of farm animals – something the RSPCA has serious animal welfare and ethical concerns about.

Under the proposals, the production of gene edited farm animals could soon be permitted in England, and sold to consumers – because they would no longer be defined as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The RSPCA fear there are “so many unknowns” when editing the genetic material of animals, and fear “a real risk of welfare problems being passed down the generations”.

To date, the Welsh Government has not made any move to permit this practice – instead acknowledging “considerable debate in the scientific community” and favouring a precautionary approach based on science.

However, even if the Welsh Government did not allow the production of gene edited foods, they would be unable to stop them appearing in shops in Wales due to new rules under the UK Internal Market Act – and it may not even need to be labelled. RSPCA Cymru fear this could have damaging consequences for consumer choice and animal welfare.

RSPCA animal welfare expert Dr Penny Hawkins said: “We have real concerns about gene editing and the animal welfare issues involved. The impact of these changes to the genome is very unpredictable and there are so many unknowns about the long term impacts of alterations to the animals’ genetic material, so there is a real risk of welfare problems being passed down the generations.

“We are incredibly worried that the UK Government is considering relaxing the rules around these procedures in England and, shockingly, this would also see farm animals categorised with and given the same considerations as farmed crops.

“The RSPCA does not think consumers will stand for this and we want as many people as possible to let the UK Government know their views – including our supporters in Wales, who do not want this food to end up on their plates – even if Welsh Government rules don’t allow its production. Because of the Internal Market Act, Wales could be powerless to stop such damaging products entering their supply chains – and we want to stop that from happening.”

Supporters in Wales are being urged to let the UK Government know that they support a moratorium on gene editing techniques on farm animals – and are concerned at the impact current proposals could have in Wales, given the Internal Market Act could override Welsh domestic legislation.

Previous UK consultations have shown that consumers do not want to see these products on their shelves. If GE animals are no longer classified as GMOs, there will be no mandatory requirement to label products made from such sources.

This would remove all choice from the consumer which is particularly concerning for those who wish to shop responsibly and promote better animal welfare through their purchasing decisions. It could also mean unlabelled, gene-edited food could be sold in Wales even if domestic legislation does not allow its production, causing “great confusion and chaos” for consumers.

David Bowles, the RSPCA’s head of public affairs, added: “The UK Government’s proposals risk consumers being presented with food which has been produced in a non-ethical way, and – at the same time – having no information about its origins.

“And in Wales – it could cause great confusion and chaos for shoppers; who – because of the Internal Market Act – may still see GE produce on their shelves even if the Welsh Government’s own rules don’t allow its production in Wales.

“It’s going to make it harder than ever for people to understand what they are eating, and where it came from – at a time when we know people want to make informed choices more than ever.

“We are hoping a future Agriculture (Wales) Act could see farmers in Wales incentivised for the highest welfare standards – but, instead, we currently risk unethical, unlabelled GE produce finding its way onto Welsh shelves despite domestic laws to the contrary.”

 

The RSPCA has numerous serious concerns about the gene editing process, namely:

  • There is no history of safe and reliable use

  • Genetic technologies can cause unpredictable and unintended changes to the genome

  • Not enough is known about the medium to long term effects on animal health and welfare

  • The current rules and regulations around GMOs are still essential for regulating GEs until there is more of a proof of use – now is not the time to consider changing these

  • There are alternative approaches to achieving the proposed benefits of genetic technologies e.g reducing food waste, with 12% of all meat and animal products produced globally lost or wasted every year, and improving animal husbandry.

  • GE products have been withdrawn from approval in the USA following the Regulator’s concerns on the transfer of other genes during the GE process.

  • GE produced food could be forced onto supermarket shelves in Scotland and Wales despite those countries objecting to its production and sale

There is also great public concern around ‘naturalness’, and little public appetite for GE animal products. This means that animals could suffer unnecessarily to develop food products which will be rejected by the public.

Supporters can let the UK Government know they support a moratorium on gene editing techniques on farm animals via the RSPCA website.