Gene editing: He Jiankui discusses his study on human embryos
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Britain’s farmers are set to dodge EU regulations, which are the strictest in the world, as they enjoy life following the UK’s split from the bloc. Environment Secretary George Eustice has announced the launch of a 10-week consultation on the future of gene editing at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC). Mr Eustice has said that it could “unlock substantial benefits to nature and the environment” and will also be able to help farmers “produce more resilient crops and produce healthier, more nutritious food”.
The Government hopes the relaxation of the rules will boost commercial growing and Mr Eustice has said he will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.
He added: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided.
“It is a tool that could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face.”
Gene-editing is the process whereby crops have genes cut out of them to produce new varieties within months.
This could also occur through traditional cross-breeding but that instead takes several years.
But scientists believe that they can use gene editing to grow more nutritious fruit, vegetables and cereals and on a greater scale, as well more resilient varieties that can survive extreme weather brought by climate change.
Gene-edited (GE) crops have more simple genetic alternations than what are known as genetically modified (GM) crops.
GM crops often involve the addition of extra genes, sometimes from a completely different species, and in sometimes involve the addition of DNA from animals.
But EU regulations state that GE crops are treated the same as GM crops.
The rules require a number of field trials that go on for several years, accompanied by extensive food safety tests.
Member states also have to vote to approve a new variety.
Biotech companies view this approach as being too extensive and costly, meaning that no genetically altered crops get developed in the EU.
But now, the Government plan to separate laws on GE and GM crops.
Legislation is due to be passed to cut red tape that requires scientists to apply for a licence to carry out open-air trials of a gene-edited crop that could have been produced through traditional cross-breeding.
The approvals process can take up to two months and cost thousands of pounds
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Next year, laws will be brought forward to allow simple gene-edited crops to be regulated in the same way as any new variety for commercial development.
The Government is reviewing what measures it would need to introduce to maintain consumer choice, including labelling and traceability.
Further down the line, ministers will review England’s approach to regulation covering all genetically modified organisms, including changes that could allow the commercial development and farming of gene-edited and genetically modified animals.
These animals can be developed to be more productive and resistant to disease.
The 10-week consultation at the OFC was welcomed by the National Farmer’s Union (NFU), which said GE and GM crops can help farmers to adapt to climate change and reduce the use of pesticides and animal fertilisers.
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “New precision breeding techniques such as gene editing the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and that environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.”
Professor Helen Sang, from The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, said: Wednesday’s announcement is 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.”
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will get to decide whether to adopt or opt-out of the changes.
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