Organic sector letter to FSA Board September 2023

18th September 2023

Dear Chair and members of the Board,

We are writing to you regarding very serious concerns that we and our organic sector colleagues have with implementation procedures under the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.

The FSA Board discussed critically important issues at the March 2023 meeting. OF&G’s Business Development Manager, Steven Jacobs, submitted five questions that directly related to concerns we in the UK organic sector had at the time. The FSA’s answers provided valuable insight into how the FSA is approaching implementation of the Act and the development of secondary legislation.

However, there remain significant areas of uncertainty.  These have direct impact on the interests of and activities across the UK organic sector including England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, also to all businesses that wish to avoid the use of Precision Bred Organisms (PBOs), and to citizens who wish to have access to clear information about whether their food contains PBOs.

We are writing now to ask the Board to consider and to address six key points. We hope that we can work together with the FSA and with Defra, to bring the much needed clarity and assurance that is currently lacking.

The six points that we must address are:

1.  There is a clear need for full end-to-end traceability on all genetically engineered products including ‘Precision Bred Organism’.

The FSA and Defra have acknowledged that PBOs ‘cannot be classed as organic’ but the Act and proposals under consideration for implementation contain no realistic mechanisms for how PBOs can be identified and traced at all stages of their production and in the production of food or feed.

At this time the assertion that ‘there are practices that can be adopted to successfully maintain separate agricultural supply chains’ is not supported by any concrete details of how this might be achieved.  We see no credible alternative to full traceability, and we would recommend a requirement for labelling of PBOs.  Our experience is that traceability and labelling are key components in delivering a high level of consumer trust.

We urge the FSA and Defra to adopt a joined-up approach to traceability of PBOs.

2.  The UK organic sector has decades-long experience operating within the complex supply chains that exist across food and farming systems, this enables us to fully comprehend that the proposed approaches to PBO notification and traceability do not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that all the required information is completed and accurate.

Such an approach significantly increases the risk of fraud and for serious food safety concerns.  These risks have the potential to affect all sectors, including those that rely on export markets that are dependent upon quality, provenance and safety.

1.  We believe that where full disclosure of genetic events created under the Act is not made available to industry bodies, such as Organic Control Bodies, Defra will have failed in its duty by not upholding UK food and feed regulations, notably but not limited to the UK organic regulations.

2.  The structure and operation of the independent advisory committee for registering PBOs must be transparent and details of committee members must be made known in advance to stakeholders including Organic Control Bodies to enable us to understand and interpret any decisions that are made.

Openness about how the classification of an organism or set of organisms has been made is essential to provide the organic sector with all the necessary information for us to carry out our legal responsibility to assess the level of integrity and the level of risk in the organic supply chain.

3.  Defra made public a commitment to publish an Enactment Impact Assessment (see attached copy of letter from Mark Spencer MP) to coincide with the Bill’s Royal Assent. We understand that this has not been delivered.

Without that Impact Assessment neither Defra nor the FSA have sufficient information about how organic and other non-GM business will be affected by implementation of the Act.  It is inappropriate to continue with any further steps toward implementation of the Act until the impact assessment has been completed and evaluated.

The current proposals being considered by the FSA Board are being made without adequate consideration of the true costs to a well-established organic market with a track record of delivering significant economic value and consumer confidence.

There is an assumption that all costs and technical challenges generated by the introduction of PBOs should be met by and addressed by those who need or wish to avoid the use of PBOs.  This is not acceptable and flies in the face of the FSA strategy to ensure safety and continued public health protection.

4.  Considerable uncertainty still exists around how implementation of the Act will be handled within the framework of the UKs internal market.  The lack of clarity around if or how all aspects of the Act can and will be implemented in all parts of the UK, including any approaches to coexistence of organic products is particularly worrying.  These concerns also extend to the as yet unresolved questions of how UK organic products would continue to have access to key export markets in the four nations, across Europe and further afield.

Overall, we consider that there are many unanswered questions about the implementation of the act, so many in fact that we ask for a pause until these have been resolved, including proper consideration by both FSA and Defra of the implications for the organic sector as outlined above.

Kind Regards,

Roger Kerr CEO, Organic Farmers & Growers CIC    --   Dominic Robinson CEO, Soil Association Certification Ltd

Helen Browning CEO, Soil Association   --   Clare Marriage CEO, Doves Farm Food

Christopher Stopes & Adrian Steele Co-chairs English Organic Forum

Further reading:

OF&G response to FSA PBO/GMO consultation January 2024

FSA - questions to the Board September 2023

FSA - questions to the Board March 2023

Letter to DEFRA: the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill 2022

OF&G letter to the Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

OF&G Briefing Note The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill 2022