UK to cut red tape to make research around gene editing of crops easier

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/SeventyFour
© GettyImages/SeventyFour

Related tags gene editing GMO Defra

The UK is looking to ‘unlock the power’ of gene editing for crops to make them more resistance and higher yielding.

New plans​ have been published by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) today as part of a response to an earlier public consultation​ it ran on gene editing.

Gene editing is different from genetic modification, noted Defra, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes, but currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now that the UK has left the EU, it can set its own rules around such genetic technologies.

“Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place,” ​said Defra secretary, George Eustice. 

As a first step, the UK government said it will move to cut red tape and make research and development linked to gene editing of crops much easier. Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials. 

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a GMO, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism, said Defra.

The UK authorities will also consider what measures are needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly.  

“We are committed to the very highest standards of environmental and food safety in the UK. There will be no weakening of our strong food safety standards. Gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than their non-genetically modified counterparts," ​continued Eustice. 

Professor Robin May, the UK Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, said that there would be significant benefits to changing the way genetic technologies are regulated to make sure the system is “as up to date as possible and properly takes into account new technologies and scientific discoveries.”

UK feed industry reaction 

UK feed industry representatives, the AIC, welcomed the government announcement.

"There are a great number of challenges facing agriculture and food production in the UK that more efficient breeding technologies could help address. We should by no means consider GE and GMO applications as the only answer to challenges in our climate and food systems; however, we cannot, and should not, overlook the possible opportunities across all sectors. With pressures across a variety of systems, we must be prepared to consider all the available technologies available to us, in order to meet net zero requirements in a rapidly changing market,"​ said Robert Sheasby, AIC chief executive. 

In that organization's response to the questions in Defra's public consultation on gene editing, it identified three broad themes for future innovation in GE and GMOs. 

  • Environmental outcomes:​ "Gene editing will allow researchers and AIC members to explore techniques or applications in plant health, livestock feed and seed breeding that can minimize emissions and disease spread, whilst allowing for new varieties or breeds that can adapt to the real challenges of climate change."
  • Meeting the needs of human and animal nutrition:​ "It is evident that dietary requirements and demands are changing in the UK and around the world. By harnessing innovation, we have an opportunity to address nutritional challenges in crops and livestock, as well as eliminating allergens and helping to reduce food waste."
  • Diversity: "There has been a growing concern across the UK agricultural sector that the nation’s genetic diversity in crops and livestock is diminishing. We now have an opportunity to fundamentally readdress the possible availability of crop varieties and types available to farmers, which can help the UK food and feed production whilst catering for the wide variety of products that UK consumers are demanding across the food chain. Having the means by which to offer farmers more choice in their cropping options would be of clear benefit."

'Boost for innovation' 

Samantha Brooke, CEO of the British Society of Plant Breeders, said changing the way new agricultural breeding technologies are regulated, by taking gene editing out of the scope of GMO rules, will encourage research and innovation to develop healthier, more nutritious food, and to make farming systems more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change.

“Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding – for example to improve its nutritional quality or resistance to disease - can take up to 15 years, but gene editing can help reduce that timescale significantly.”

The UK National Pig Association’s Rebecca Veale said technologies such as gene editing are vital for the future of the pig industry. “They could benefit not only our pig herd, but the environment and the British public also. The initial focus for government is plant research, we also hope that, once established, the scope can be broadened to explore the opportunities in livestock.”

Critical voices 

In terms of critical reactions to Defra's gene editing move, Pat Thomas, director, Beyond GM, told FeedNavigator:

“Defra says it wants to cut the red tape and lift the regulatory burden on biotech research and development. But the process of, for example, applying for a field trial in the UK already has a very low burden of proof and takes only a couple of months from start to finish. Moreover, to our knowledge, few, if any, field trial applications have ever been refused in the UK. It’s hard to imagine what the government can do to make what is essentially a rubber stamp process less burdensome.

“The Defra report on the consultation shows that 87% of the public and 64% of businesses feel that deregulation is a risky option; 63% of academia and 82% of and public sector bodies (82%) disagreed, but these represent just 35 responses in total to the consultation. Why is the government allowing the views of a tiny minority – many of whom represent the biotech industry - to override the views of the majority? Surely it can see that, without public and business support, there is no market for gene editing.”

Related topics Regulation Europe Non-GMO

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