THE BBC and other media have been accused of “repeating uncritically and ad nauseam” UK Government “lies” about genetically edited foods.

The news comes after the Tories in Westminster asked the devolved ­nations to renege on established ­policy and allow gene-edited crops to be grown in their territories in order to align themselves with upcoming rule changes in England.

The Conservatives have claimed that genetically edited food differs from genetically modified food – both of which are classified together under EU law – as it does not involve the insertion of foreign genes.

This line has been often repeated in the media in reporting around the ­Tories’ Genetic Technology ­(Precision Breeding) Bill. In one ­example, a BBC graphic used across multiple news stories states that the “difference between gene editing and modification” is that gene editing is when a “section of the plant’s DNA [is] snipped out”, while modification is when a “section of DNA [is] added, sometimes from a different species”.

The BBC story adds: “A bill will be introduced to allow commercial growing of gene-edited crops in ­England.”

A UK Government spokesperson pointed to an interview with Environment Secretary George Eustice, in which he said that gene editing can involve “moving a trait, for ­instance, from one variety of wheat to ­another”, undermining the BBC reports which claim it only involves cutting out ­sections of DNA.

Dr Michael Antoniou, a ­genetics ­expert from the King’s College ­London School of Medicine, said such reporting “misrepresented” the facts and was “economic with the truth at best”.

“This is where it gets really disingenuous,” he said. “Under the new bill, the insertion of foreign DNA is part and parcel of the deregulation.

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“It’s not as if what’s being deregulated is only gene edits that tweak or destroy the function of the genes which are already there, it’s also the insertion of foreign genetic material.

“They’re basically deregulating all manner of genetic manipulations of crops.”

Pat Thomas, the director of Beyond GM, accused the UK Government of “lying” about what gene editing ­actually entails.

She said: “I realise the idea that the Government might be lying barely moves the needle on people’s outrage these days. Nevertheless, the Government’s case for deregulation depends on embedding the myth that gene editing is different from genetic modification.

“Central to this false narrative – which is being repeated uncritically and ad nauseam in the media – is the suggestion that gene editing does not involve the insertion of foreign genes.

“In fact, the term gene editing is shorthand for a range of different genetic modification techniques that can and do involve the insertion of foreign genes.

“It’s telling also that the first ­experimental crop allowed to go ahead … ­required transgenes [genes transferred from one organism to ­another] in its creation.

“As far as we can tell, the second experimental crop to be given the ­go-ahead, a vitamin D-containing tomato, was also created using transgenes. I think everybody would like some certainty on this.”

Professor Cathie Martin, from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, led the research that resulted in the tomato, which reports say could become the first genetically engineered crop to be put up for sale in the UK.

She told The National that while the process did involve inserting ­foreign genes, these were removed ­before the final plant was put to ­market.

“Precision breeding, which is done by genome editing, does not involve the presence of any foreign DNA,” she said.

“Think of it this way: you have an operation, and they do a temporary repair and there’s some stitches left. You couldn’t say there was no foreign material while the stitches are there, but you can remove the stitches and there is none any more.”

Antoniou said that he could understand what Martin was “getting at”, but argued that taking out the foreign DNA used for gene editing would never be as clean as having stitches removed.

The National: Michael AntoniouMichael Antoniou

“The gene-editing tool DNA can fragment and bits of it can randomly insert in many locations around the DNA of the plant, and that is not ­being checked for,” he said “At each one of the stages of the gene-editing process, you introduce unintended genetic alterations running into the hundreds of thousands. Even the process of growing plant cells in the laboratory introduces hundreds of sites of DNA damage.

“You end up with a plant that ­carries a high burden of ­unintended DNA damage with unknown ­downstream consequences.”

Antoniou says that these “scientific facts are being ignored”, arguing that any idea the outcomes of widespread use of genetically edited products can be predicted is “fantasy”.

Furthermore, the King’s College researcher says, one of the “great horrors” of the UK Government’s bill is that genetically edited produce will not need to be labelled as such. And the Tories’ post-Brexit ­Internal ­Market Act means the devolved ­nations will be powerless to prevent the sale of such unlabelled products within their borders.

As a result, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and through its border into the Republic and the wider EU – shoppers may find themselves buying and consuming genetically modified produce unawares.

However, Martin claims that the devolved nations are making “political decisions” without looking at the science.

She told The National: “They should look very carefully at the scientific arguments around gene editing rather than reject it out of hand because it’s something that England wants. It makes perfect sense for Scotland, and the other devolved ­governments as well. Precision breeding will be key to successful contributions to addressing many of the sustainability ­issues in agriculture.”

Asked if there should be concerns about cross-border trade with the EU, Martin expressed confidence the bloc would soon change its position.

“It would be foolish for the ­Scottish Government to say they won’t do it, because these trade barriers will go,” she said. “Don’t get hung up on a ­political decision, it will affect you negatively economically.”

Antoniou disagrees however, and praised the devolved nations for ­“being true to the science”.

“If you stand against it, you are ­being true to the science that tells you that this thing is not precise, it’s not predictable and it needs to remain regulated,” he said.

“They’re literally ripping up the rulebook on all types of genetic ­modification procedures and being completely dishonest to the science in the process. So I would ­congratulate the Scottish and Welsh assemblies if they remain in opposition to gene ­editing and exclude it from ­cultivation in their territories.”

And it’s not limited to plants. While they are covered in this first bill, the UK Government has made clear that it also hopes to pave the way for the genetic editing of “animals with ­beneficial traits that could also o­ccur through traditional breeding and ­natural processes”.

The idea that genetic editing produces organisms which could have been reached through natural processes has been much touted by the London government, but Antoniou is extremely sceptical of the rhetoric.

“There’s no resemblance to the process that occurs naturally,” he says. “Gene editing is completely and utterly different and it is, without doubt, an intentional artificial genetic modification.”

The Welsh Government said it would make “decisions based on proven science” with nature and people’s health at the fore.

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The Scottish Government said it was opposed to genetically modified produce as it aimed “to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry”, adding that the Tories had not even shared a copy of the bill they had asked the devolved nations to sign up to.

A UK Government spokesperson claimed that genetically edited foods did not need to be labelled, as they “are indistinguishable from ­traditionally bred counterparts”.

Environment Secretary George Eustice added: “Outside the EU we are free to follow the science. These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilisers. The UK has some incredible academic centres of excellence and they are poised to lead the way.”

The BBC told The National that it “stood by its journalism”.