Opponents to proposed UK gene editing Bill say the legislative process is moving way too fast

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Yuuji
© GettyImages/Yuuji

Related tags gene editing camelina

According to Beyond GM, the Bill to deregulate gene editing, as laid out in the Queen’s Speech, will get its first reading next week.

The second reading would then likely take place in early June, with the committee stage following in late June or early July and the report stage happening sometime after the summer recess. “This is a worryingly rapid timeline for such a highly disputed and fundamental legislative change,”​ said Pat Thomas, director, Beyond GM.

Unlocking agricultural innovation  

In the Queen's Speech 2022, on May 10, the UK government stated that it will encourage agricultural and scientific innovation and introduce new legislation, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, to "unlock the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production.”

The legislation seeks to simplify the regulatory regime for precision-bred plants and animals.

The Bill is part of the government's commitment to depart from the EU regulatory regime around gene editing to make it easier and cheaper to develop and market gene-edited plant and animal products.

The UK has carried out a gene-editing consultation and, in its response, indicated that it intended to treat gene editing differently to other forms of genetic modification by introducing a more light-touch approach compared to the existing regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), noted​ legal experts.

Managing unintended consequences

Thomas said that if agricultural innovation in the form of genetic technologies is the UK government’s goal, it must be prepared to acknowledge and deal properly with risk and the potential for damage and unintended consequences. “That’s what regulation is for: to understand and manage consequences. With this Bill, the government is choosing to forsake complex discussions around foresight, mitigation, precaution or remediation.”

She also noted that when the government asked the UK public last year if they supported the planned changes in regulation of genetic technologies, the overwhelming majority said no. Some 85% expressed the view that the genetic technologies used in farming should continue to be regulated in the same way as other GMOs, said the Beyond GM lead.

“Citizens are major stakeholders in the food and farming discussion and their input on matters of how taxpayer money is spent, the need for and appropriateness of genome edited crops and animals, and on the roll out into the food chain and environment – including the necessity of labelling – is crucial. A failure to address these issues will result in a lack of trust and the collapse of both citizen and market “buy-in” to any new regulatory regime.”

Public Policy Projects (PPP), a UK based policy institute, said while the Bill marks an important step in integrating genomics and gene editing into the public psyche, the government and industry must be prepared for potential backlash.  Ensuring public trust, engagement with and support for the legislation is vital, stressed the institute.

Food and feed impact

Mario Caccamo, chief executive of the UK’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), is hugely positive about the proposed legislation, saying it will provide a more straightforward route to market for seeds and crops developed using advanced breeding technologies such as gene editing.

“It sends a clear signal that Britain is adopting a more pro-innovation approach outside the EU, bringing our rules into line with other countries such as Japan, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, and opening up much greater potential for inward investment and international research collaboration given the UK’s strengths in genetic science.

“Innovation in plant breeding will be the single most important factor in helping global food supplies keep pace with a growing world population, in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources of land, water, energy and biodiversity. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief the precarious balance which exists between global food supply and demand, and the need to explore every option to increase food production sustainably.

“Here at NIAB, we are keen to explore the potential for gene editing to transform the performance of leguminous crops such as faba beans and soybeans under UK growing conditions. These are neglected crops in terms of breeding effort, and yet the economic, environmental and climate change opportunities they offer, as nitrogen-fixing sources of home-grown, plant-based protein for human and livestock consumption, are hugely significant.”

But Beyond GM’s Thomas said current field trials in the UK, examining gene-edited lines, do not address pressing environmental issues, in spite of the government view that such plant breeding techniques are required to fight pressing ecological crises like climate change, drought and world hunger.

“Neither of the crops being studied in the most recent field trials addresses these issues.The camelina​ trial is intended for the farmed fish and nutraceutical industries. The vitamin D-containing tomato​trial – based on a variety called “Moneymaker” which is popular with home gardeners – also appears to be the subject of pharmaceutical rather than agricultural or environmental interest. Tomato fruits do not naturally contain vitamin D.”

However, US ag bioscience company, Yield 10, argues​ that camelina seed is a sustainable, plant-based replacement for fish oil and can also be used to produce a low-carbon oil for renewable diesel.

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