Farming News - Plans to unlock potential benefits of gene editing announced

Plans to unlock potential benefits of gene editing announced

29 Sep 2021
Frontdesk / Arable / Livestock

New plans to unlock the power of gene editing to help our farmers grow more resistant, more nutritious, and more productive crops have been published as part of the government response to the gene editing consultation, announced by Environment Secretary George Eustice. The response sets out how we plan to pave the way to enable use of gene editing technologies, which can help better protect the environment.  

Gene editing is a tool that makes plant breeding more precise and efficient so that we can breed crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment, helping to benefit farmers and reduce impacts on the environment. 

Research could also lead to sugar beet varieties resistant to viruses that can cause serious yield losses and costs to farmers unless pesticides are used. Such new varieties would help make our farmers more productive and, importantly, also reduce the need for chemical pesticides, protecting our bees and other pollinating insects.

Gene editing is different from genetic modification, as 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. 

Leaving the EU allows the UK to set our own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies. As a first step, the government will change the rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape and make research and development easier.    

The focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: 

“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.

“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.”

Defra chief scientific advisor Gideon Henderson said:  

“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.   

“These tools enable us to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years. 

“There are exciting opportunities to improve the environment, and we can also produce new varieties that are healthier to eat, and more resistant to climate change.” 

Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials. The planned changes will ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing, to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, 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.  

The government will consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly. In the longer term, this will be followed by a review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly. 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.

The government will continue to work with farming and environmental groups to develop the right rules and to ensure robust controls are in place to maintain the highest food safety and environmental protection standards, while supporting the production of healthier food.

Professor Helen Sang OBE, Head of Division of Functional Genetics and Development, The Roslin Institute and R(D)SVS:

“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.

“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.”