The UK will be relaxing its policy surrounding the science of gene editing in a bid to help British farmers grow more pest-resistant, climate-resilient, nutritious and productive crops.
However, the move has been met with some concerns around health and environmental safety, even while the British government maintains that new plant varieties would help make farmers reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
Dr. Helen Wallace, executive director of the campaign Group Genewatch, described the changes as a “weakening of standards meant to protect human health and the environment.”
Professor Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre remarks: “I’m pleased that the Government is acting to change the regulation of gene edited plants and I welcome today’s announcement. But while DEFRA’s announcement is a step forward for crop trials, it is disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development.”
“The benefits of these technologies will only be realized if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers. It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat.”
Gene edited vs. GMO
Gene editing is different from genetic modification, 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.
But even so, a Welsh government spokesperson comments that the nation has no plans to revise the existing GMO Deliberate Release Regulations in Wales and will maintain a “precautionary approach” to genetic modification.
“Unlike the UK government, we will continue to view products produced by gene editing as genetically modified as set out by the European Court of Justice in 2018,” they add.
GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism.
Speeding up breeding
Gene editing involves making desired changes to a plant or animal which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first intentional genomic alteration in an animal for human consumption with GalSafe pigs.
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 time scale significantly.
Overall, this method enables growers to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years.
Without the contribution of plant breeding over the past 20 years, farmers would have produced 20% less food in this country, which means an extra 1.8 million hectares of land would have been needed to supply food needs, states the UK government.
“That expansion would have impacted vulnerable ecosystems and generated an extra 300 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Cutting red tape
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) began its consultation on gene editing last January. As a first step, Britain will adjust its rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape and make research and development easier.
Research in this field could lead to sugar beet varieties resistant to viruses that can cause serious yield losses and costs to farmers unless pesticides are used, the UK government outlines.
“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,” remarks environment secretary George Eustice.
“Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change. We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place.”
“Gene editing technologies provide a more precise way of introducing targeted genetic changes – making the same types of changes to plants and animals that occur more slowly naturally or through traditional breeding,” explains Gideon Henderson, chief scientific advisor at the Defra.
The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism and to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies – if they could have been developed by traditional breeding.
The government will consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly, it states. In the longer term, this will be followed by a review of England’s approach to GMO regulation “more broadly.”
“A major boost for UK science”
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.
“Gene editing offers major opportunities to address the combined challenges of rapidly increasing global demand for healthy and nutritious food with the goal of net zero carbon emissions,” says professor Helen Sang, head of Division of Functional Genetics and Development, at The Roslin Institute and R(D)SVS.
“I welcome today’s announcement as a first step towards reducing unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers to the use of advanced breeding techniques which are precise and targeted, allowing us to make specific genetic changes.”
“Adopting a more proportionate and enabling approach to regulation will open up increased opportunities for international research collaboration, inward investment and technology-based exports, bringing a major boost for UK science.”
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