UK feed and pig industries welcome UK consultation on gene editing

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/SeventyFour
© GettyImages/SeventyFour

Related tags gene editing Defra

The Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) has responded positively to the UK government’s new consultation, launched today, on the future legislative approach to gene editing of crops and livestock in England.

Robert Sheasby, CEO of the AIC, the voice of the UK feed and the agri-supply sector, said:

“The AIC warmly welcomes the launch of this government consultation on gene editing in crops and livestock. We have long sought to support sustainable modern commercial agriculture in the UK, and this is the opportunity for our members to put forward their views on this development. We would encourage the industry at large to respond.”

EU legislation controlling the use of GMOs was retained in the UK at the end of the transition period, after December 31, 2020. This retained legislation requires that all GE organisms are classified as GMOs irrespective of whether they could be produced by traditional breeding methods.

The UK's Department of Food, Rural Affairs and the Environment (Defra) said it is its view that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.

“Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to consult on the implications of addressing this issue. We recognize there is a spectrum of opinions on these topics, and we are consulting to provide an opportunity for all views to be shared."

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, where the consultation ​was launched, UK environment secretary, George Eustice, said:

“Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change. Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation.”

Consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public is the beginning of this process that, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinized and approved by the UK parliament, stressed Defra.

Professor Robin May, the chief scientific officer of the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), also welcomed the review, saying:

“The UK prides itself in having the very highest standards of food safety, and there are strict controls on GM crops, seeds and food which the FSA will continue to apply moving forward. As with all novel foods, GE foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods. We will continue to put the consumer first and be transparent and open in our decision-making. Any possible change would be based on an appropriate risk assessment that looks at the best available science.”

Sir David Baulcombe, professor of botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said the overwhelming view of public sector scientists is that the Nobel Prize winning methods for gene editing can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture.

Long-terms benefits for pig production, feed efficiency 

The UK National Pig Association (NPA) said that gene editing technology could potentially deliver long-term benefits for pig production. 

In the NPA's response to the Nuffield Council of Bioethics’ call for evidence on genome editing in September 2019, its senior policy adviser, Rebecca Veale, identified the potential value of gene editing tools in improving the efficiency of pig production. 

"The opportunities for application are long. We might be in a better place to tackle diseases such as ASF and PRRS and we might be able to reduce emissions in pig production or exploit nutritional availability in feed better. 

"A few countries have made small steps to utilizing this technology, but these have been limited. Our industry cannot be disadvantaged by a lack of access to such a tool and any future policy must be clear not to breach ethical boundaries, but to have flexibility to allow the use of the technology to be exploited to its full potential. Any future developments are reliant on support for the research required to explore the opportunities available,”​ she added.

'Defra is pushing the high-tech, quick-fix agenda'

Responding to the consultation, the director of anti-GM campaign group, GM Freeze, Liz O’Neill said:

"People have many concerns about the use of genetic engineering in food and farming so public engagement is vital but it has to be done well. Unfortunately this consultation has started very badly. It’s been launched in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis; it has a clear bias in favour of removing vital safeguards; and the text of the consultation grossly misrepresents the nature of highly experimental new GM techniques.

"Instead of working with people to understand their concerns, Defra is pushing the high-tech, quick-fix agenda favoured by industrial farming corporations. GM Freeze will, of course, be submitting evidence and we encourage everyone who wants to know what they are eating to do the same, but the government should be doing much more to protect our food, our farms and the natural environment."

Aside from gene editing, the consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the UK approach to genetic modification by gathering information on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them, said Defra.

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