Northern Ireland to miss out on UK gene-edited crops revolution because of Brexit treaty

·4 min read
Britain is to used the freedom of Brexit to benefit from gene-edited crops, but Northern Ireland could miss out because of the Protocol
Britain is to used the freedom of Brexit to benefit from gene-edited crops, but Northern Ireland could miss out because of the Protocol

Northern Ireland is set to miss out on Britain’s gene-edited crops revolution because of the Brexit treaty that created the Irish Sea border.

While the rest of the UK plans to use its new Brexit freedoms to benefit from cheaper and more resilient harvests, the Northern Ireland Protocol effectively bans gene-edited crops.

Edwin Poots, the Northern Ireland agriculture minister and former DUP leader, said: “This issue once again further highlights the unworkable nature of the Protocol for the agri-food sector.”

After Brexit, the UK is free to change EU rules so farmers can grow plants edited to make them more resistant to disease or needing less water and fertiliser.

Those plans were accelerated to boost food security and curb the cost of living crisis in Britain, after the war in Ukraine hit global supplies and raised prices.

A bill was sent to Parliament on Wednesday to allow gene-edited plants and animals.

But Northern Ireland continues to follow 300 EU rules, including for genetically modified foods, as part of the Protocol, which prevents a hard border with EU member Ireland.

The Protocol also introduced checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland to ensure they meet EU standards in case they cross into Ireland, which has banned genetically modified food.

“The introduction of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in England will not apply to Northern Ireland,” Mr Poots said, who has raised his concerns with George Eustice, the Environment Secretary.

“The Protocol requires alignment to EU rules, so gene-edited crops developed in England under the Bill would not be available for cultivation in Northern Ireland.”

The Government has called for a new dual regulatory system as part of its Protocol demands, which is opposed by the European Commission in talks to change the treaty.

It would allow Northern Ireland businesses to decide whether to follow UK or EU standards for goods remaining in the province and not entering the EU.

“We've been clear that people in Northern Ireland shouldn't be prevented from having access to the same goods as people in the rest of the UK. Our solution delivers that," a government source said.

The UK has warned it will legislate to override the Protocol if talks fail, which Brussels warns could start a trade war.

Genetically modified food has DNA added to it, which has led to claims it is “Frankenfood”. It has been banned in several European countries such as France, Germany, Ireland and Italy.

Gene-edited crops remove DNA, which supporters say speeds up the natural process of evolution and is safer.

The EU treats gene-edited crops as the same as genetically modified food, which faces a huge number of obstacles before it can be brought to market.

EU farmers can apply to cultivate the crops, but they must get permission from the EU regulator. However, individual member states can choose to ignore the authorisation and ban the food. A single genetically modified crop has so far been approved in the EU but some states still banned it.

Any British gene-edited crops would have to apply to the European Food Standards Agency for approval before they could be sent to Northern Ireland - which imports, among other things, grain for animal feed.

Even then, the crops could still be banned by Dublin, which would present a fresh headache in ensuring the affected plants did not cross the invisible Irish border.

The situation is further complicated because Northern Ireland, like Scotland, has banned genetically modified crops.

At this stage, it is unclear whether Stormont would, if EU rules were not a consideration, follow the UK’s lead. Sinn Fein, the biggest party in Northern Ireland, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has not been restored since the DUP pulled out in February in protest over the Protocol, which it accuses of harming trade with Britain and of being anti-democratic.

The DUP refused to enter into power-sharing with Sinn Fein after the May 5 elections, until the Protocol is removed or replaced in UK-EU negotiations over the treaty.

There is some debate in Brussels over the merits of gene-edited food and whether to follow the UK’s lead.

Progress towards tweaking the existing rules is likely to be slow, given the opposition in some countries and a ruling by the European Court of Justice that it should be treated as genetically modified.