Tweaking Britain’s Genes – A Impossible Challenge

Jonathan Sykes

As Brexit negotiations roll on, we increasingly become aware of how much new legislation is needed to fill the void left by the EU. As each piece of new policy is suggested, knocked about, written up, torn down and battered about, we see how seemingly unrelated areas of political concern become knotted together, shaping how the UK will look after Brexit. To demonstrate this, I will examine potential policy changes around genetically modified (GM) crops in relation to devolution.

Genetic modification is a hot topic on which the green lobby is split, those on one side see the potential to provide additional production yields, those on the other see risk to the environment. The broad scientific consensus is that GM technology is safe, and that GM plants used in agriculture pose no more problems than other modern crop products. GM is also a great opportunity for hi-tech jobs in the UK. However, socio-politically GM is anything but safe, and only one GM crop is grown substantially in Europe where they are regulated under the precautionary principle in the EU. As part of a precautionary principle the EU permits member states to ban cultivation as they see fit. It also licenses crops for cultivation and food for human consumption.

As it stands, in the United Kingdom GM crop cultivation is banned in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland and in 2015, Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour, the SNP, the Greens and both the DUP and Sinn Fein all opposed growing GM crops. What would happen if a post-Brexit Westminster government decided to introduce GM crops to British agriculture as a priority (apart from a media fire-fight)? And what does this tell us about trying to change a devolved Britain?

Currently policy around GM is a devolved matter. This means that the Welsh, Scottish and Irish governments make decisions about its use in their jurisdiction. However, as part of Brexit, Westminster is taking temporary control of all powers that were under the EU jurisdiction in order to repatriate them. This means the Common Agricultural Policy is going to be brought into the UK, turned into a UK specific version, and then re-devolved.

This is still an issue of contention, the SNP are holding out on agreeing to this ‘re-devolution’ process, concerned that the powers handed back to them may not be the same as they have now. The Welsh government has agreed after receiving a guarantee that they would be consulted on the exercise of those powers by Westminster and that they would be handled back by a certain date (a ‘sunset’ clause). Should Westminster wish to push through GM policy, it would be easiest to do so whilst powers are temporarily retained by them. It would of course likely be a death sentence for any government that acted this way.

But suppose this did happen and Westminster has forced the rest of the UK into line. We now hit the next snag. This policy isn’t going to be considered compatible under a customs union covering agriculture with the EU. So whilst the UK could retain other customs agreements, there will be no equivalence of legislation between the two. Ideally we want to have markets for these products to sell to.

The USA, India, Australia, South Africa, Canada and large parts of South America all grow substantial quantities of GM crops. These would all be good potential trade partners. Canada is particularly appealing as it has a strong trade link with the EU through the EU Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). And give a starting framework. Both options discussed by the current government (Max Fac and custom partnership) would likely be closer than this.

Okay so, internal issues sorted and international relationships templated. Any issues? Well you guessed it: the Irish border. The EU is going to want confirmation that no GM crops leak across the border into the EU that aren’t compliant. The best option would be to permit Northern Ireland to have the power to form an agreement with Ireland to continue the ban. This sadly would likely break the delicate balance you had with the other devolved administrations. This means you’re back to bans across Wales and Scotland.

So it becomes clear that without creating internal borders, backstabbing or pacifying devolved administrations (in a way the DUP would never tolerate) we’d struggle to do anything.

With the recent walkout of the SNP from the House of Commons, the inclusion of the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish governments has a much higher profile. It remains to be seen if other levels of government such as local government and the metro mayors with their own more limited constitutional powers will try to exercise them in relation to Brexit. This could potentially make Brexit even more complex. 

Sadly I fear that many policies that could be put into place and use Brexit as a chance to respond to sustainability issues will be sucked down into a quagmire of competing agendas. This seems to be the natural destination of devolution, making overarching reform difficult, whether for protection or obstruction. This piece hopefully gives an idea how anyone who wants to achieve anything with Brexit feels. People block you at every turn. I personally don’t think it’s worth the effort, but admire the tenacity those who want to achieve aims such as a liberalisation of regulation post-Brexit.