Defra plan to make gene edited plant research easier faces scrutiny

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/PhonlamaiPhoto
© GettyImages/PhonlamaiPhoto

Related tags gene editing Defra

A House of Lords committee has raised concerns about proposed regulatory changes related to the release of gene edited plants for use in field trials in England, announced last month.

Following Brexit, the UK government is intending to change the law to enable scientists across England to be able to undertake plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies such as gene editing, more easily. 

In January, an instrument, introduced by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), proposed to remove the legal requirement for obtaining the secretary of state’s consent, completing a risk assessment and conducting a public consultation before releasing plants with genetic modifications, which could have occurred naturally or been produced by traditional breeding, into the environment for non-marketing purposes.

The move, said the UK government, would enable the bioscience sector to test the benefits and safety of relevant new products “without the burden of unnecessary regulatory processes.”

Defra argues gene editing is different from genetic modification because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and thus, it argues, creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes.  

Lack of guidance

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has published a report​ after reviewing the draft Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022.

The committee slammed the lack of detail​ and scant guidance in the draft and questioned the UK government's decision to make a major change to its policy on GMOs via secondary legislation, rather than through a Bill in its own right, which would have allowed 'thorough and robust' scrutiny by parliament.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, SLSC chair, commented:

Since Defra has told us that the intention is for the changes proposed by this instrument to be the first step of a wider reform program, the House might have found it helpful for their scrutiny to have been given some detail of the future direction of travel the government proposes to follow in this important area.

“The proposals are of significant public interest, as indicated by critical submissions sent to the Committee and the significant number of responses to the consultation Defra conducted. With guidance on the new rules still under development, the draft Regulations raise questions about their practical implementation including how qualifying higher plants will be assessed, the reliance on self-declaration and the absence of prescribed safeguards and containment measures.

“Given that the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms are both complex and controversial Defra surely should have anticipated that there would be considerable public interest in this instrument. Accordingly, it seems astonishing that the guidance on these new rules has not been made available for scrutiny alongside the regulation.”

Containment measures

SLSC queried why there were no requirements in the rule changes for notification about any containment measures taken to prevent potential adverse effects on commercial crops in the area that might occur once gene edited plants are released into the environment. That was a topic of particular concern to organic farmers, it added.

Defra told the committee that, on the basis of the scientific advice it had received, it did not believe that field trials involving gene edited plants would lead to any more risk of environmental or economic damage than traditionally bred plants, and that safeguards or containment measures were the responsibility of whoever was developing or releasing the GMO into the environment.

Civil society groups Beyond GM, GM Freeze and the Organic Farmers & Growers raised their concerns about the proposed legislative amendments with the SLSC.

Pat Thomas, director, Beyond GM, responded positively to the SLSC’s findings:

“It’s encouraging to see that the House of Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) has seen through the smoke and mirrors of this proposed amendment. The statutory instrument, which will alter the definition of a GMO in the UK’s Environmental Protection Act, is incoherent and full of loopholes. It creates an entirely hypothetical subset of GMOs ‘that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding’ but fails to provide any guidance on how these mythical GMOs are to be assessed.

“The amendment neither clarifies nor advances the cause of research nor does it provide any reassurance for farmers who don’t want to see experimental GMO crops planted next to their non-GMO fields. It also does not take into account the view of the thousands of citizens who responded to last year’s public consultation – 85% of whom said they wished to see gene-edited organisms continue to be regulated as GMOs.

“We urge the House of Lords and the House of Commons to reject this unclear statutory instrument.”

Benefits of gene editing

Professor Dale Sanders, director of The John Innes Centre, a UK organization specialized in plant and microbial research, was enthusiastic in January when Defra announced its proposal.

“Gene editing is a powerful technique that will play a critical role in helping us address the global challenges of climate change and food security while at the same time ensuring biodiversity.

"However, to benefit fully, we have to address the way we regulate this technology. Defra’s announcement today is step in the right direction, that will allow researchers to run more field trials of gene-edited crops.

“To make the most of these discoveries, we need to translate our science to benefits for consumers by making products available on supermarket shelves. I look forward to working with Defra as it continues its wider review of regulations around genetic technologies. Getting this right will be essential if we are to fully benefit from this innovative technology.”

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