Crop and livestock gene editing consultation follows Brexit

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Using gene editing to produce crops and livestock in England could get the thumbs up depending on the outcome of a consultation just launched by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).

UK Environment Secretary George Eustice

UK Environment Secretary George Eustice

Defra Secretary George Eustice launched the consultation at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference recognising that the technology could unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food. Although the practice is banned in the European Union, Brexit has offered up this opportunity for England to make its own decisions on the method.

The way that plants and animals grow is controlled by the information in their genes. For centuries, farmers and growers have carefully chosen to breed stronger, healthier individual animals or plants so that the next generation has these beneficial traits, but this is a slow process. Technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited much more quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process, helping to target plant and animal breeding to help the UK reach its vital climate and biodiversity goals in a safe and sustainable way.

Gene editing vs. genetic modification

Gene editing is different to genetic modification. In genetic modification DNA from one species is introduced to a completely different one – for example inserting a jellyfish protein into sheep to create fluorescent livestock (scientists in Uruguay actually did that in 2012). Instead gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from other species, and instead only produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods. At the moment, due to a legal ruling from the European Court of Justice in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification.

The consultation announced will focus on stopping certain gene editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding. This approach has already been adopted by a wide range of countries across the world, including Japan, Australia and Argentina.

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

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation.”

Consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public is the beginning of this process which, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinized and approved by Parliament.

Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor, welcomed the consultation and said: “The UK prides itself in having the very highest standards of food safety, and there are strict controls on GM crops, seeds and food which the FSA will continue to apply moving forward.

As with all novel foods, GE foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods. We will continue to put the consumer first and be transparent and open in our decision-making. Any possible change would be based on an appropriate risk assessment that looks at the best available science.”

Responding to the announcement, NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “New precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.” adding “New biotechnologies are also enabling the development of foods with much more direct benefit to the public, such as healthier oils, higher vitamin content and products with a longer shelf life… We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future.”

The consultation will run for ten weeks from Thursday, 7 January to Wednesday, 17 March at 23:59.

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Chris McCullough is a freelance multi-media journalist based in Northern Ireland and specialises in all aspects of agriculture. He has spent the past 18 years travelling the globe hunting for the best stories in food, farming and politics. He has reported extensively from overseas, mostly throughout Europe but also from USA, Canada, India, Australia and African countries on various topics. He has won a number of awards for his photos and journalism and is always on the lookout for his next exclusive.

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