Boris Johnson on July 24.Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Boris Johnson pledged to abandon European environmental rules that have curtailed development of genetically modified (GM) crop plants and farm animals in the UK, in his first speech as prime minister.
“Let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world,” Johnson said. The National Farmers Union cheered the comments, saying the move may help farmers use the best technology and be competitive.
Johnson’s stance highlights the shakeup that may be coming to the U.K.’s farming sector as the country prepares for Brexit. Some opponents are worried that new trade deals could lead to Britain shifting its stance on food products such as seeds and chlorine-treated chicken. After talks with the U.S. earlier this year, a spokeswoman for former Prime Minister Theresa May said the U.K. wouldn't lower food standards in any deals.
While uncommon in Europe, GMO crops are a mainstay in many of the world’s top crop producers. Much of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S., Brazil and Argentina have come from GMO seeds for years, and Spain sows some of the crops. There are also such varieties of cotton, canola and sugar beet around the world.
In a recent report, the World Resources Institute said genetic modification is key to helping feed a growing global population as the world faces warmer weather and scarcer water supplies. Biotechnology holds “genuine and exciting solutions” to help producers cope with challenges, Helen Ferrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser at the U.K.’s farmers union, said in a statement.
Johnson’s proposals could encourage more research investment into the sector and will be welcomed by the industry, which has long felt “restrained” by the EU’s position on biotechnology and lengthy delays in approvals, IHS Markit crops specialist Sanjiv Rana said.
Potential gains from genetic technologies include a reduction in agrochemicals use, which would reduce the carbon footprint, said Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which specialises in crop genetics.
However, it could be a while before GMO crops are widely adopted in Britain and sales to the EU will remain a barrier.
The industry may also have to spend more time and money keeping GMO crops separate from traditional varieties until they gain market access, said Dylan Bradley, senior analyst for IHS Markit.
Only one type of GM crop seed, Monsanto’s 810 maize, has commercial approval in Europe, in line with the EU’s traditionally cautious approach to biotechnology in food and agriculture. Any GM imports are subject to strict safety assessments imposed on a case-by-case basis.
The withdrawal agreement that was drafted between the previous prime minister and the EU – the Brexit deal Johnson says is dead in its current form – says EU requirements on GM would remain in UK law.
Any GM product would continue to require prior authorisation, and this would only be granted if there were no safety concerns.
And in a no-deal scenario, UK businesses would still only be able to export GM products to mainland Europe with EU marketing approval.
“You need a lawyer, not a molecular geneticist, to judge how [all of this] may be implemented,” said Huw Jones, professor of translational genomics for plant breeding at Aberystwyth University. “However, plant breeding in all its guises will clearly form part of sustainable future farming.”