It will soon become easier for research into gene editing in plants to take place in the UK because new rules are being brought forward by the government to encourage development efforts such as field trials.
Ministers say that cutting the red tape on gene editing research will help our country develop multiple strains of crops that have less of an environmental impact, need less pesticide and provide better nutrition.
These new rules will be introduced in the form of a statutory instrument and will only apply to research. It will not allow gene-edited crops into widespread cultivation or consumption.
After the government’s public consultation last year, these plans are to be implemented as part of a gradual approach towards gene editing.
Ministers have repeatedly made their support for gene editing and genetic modification as aids to modernising farming known, making the preferred direction of travel clear.
The minister for agri-innovation and climate adaptation Jo Churchill said –
“New genetic technologies could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age, around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. Now we have the freedom and opportunity to foster innovation, to improve the environment, and help us grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs will still require notification of gene-editing research taking place in the UK. Future food and crops are subject to authorisation requirements as they are at present.
As the rules have been laid out, they only apply to gene editing and the process of working with a plant’ existing genome in order to accelerate what could already be achieved through natural selection rather than the modification and importation of genes from other species.
Promising areas of research for Scientists in the UK are virus-resistant sugar beet, mildew resistant tomatoes and wheat that could be altered to contain less of a possible carcinogen.
However, campaigners have previously expressed their concerns that the government’s change in position over the past year and since Brexit has made it easy for the UK to scrap some of the EU’s original rules on genetic modification leading to the use of GM crops being used widely throughout the United Kingdom’s food industry.
Pat Thomas, the director of Beyond GM said –
“Today’s announcement is a sop to the biotech research establishment that doesn’t really address the most significant hurdles that developers need to face, which are that farmers don’t really want to grow genetically engineered crops and citizens don’t want to eat them.”
“There’s a lot of techno-optimism about what kind of gene-edited foods might materialise one day. But none of the crops Defra is talking about is close to coming to market. After 35 years of use, genetically engineered crops have not delivered much in terms of real value and they have largely been a distraction from more meaningful discussions about what kind of food system we want and need to transition to.”
Many scientists have welcomed these rule changes. The executive director of the Sainsbury Laboratory Prof Nick Talbot has said –
“We can achieve the outcomes of plant breeding – which has been so successful in controlling diseases and improving yields – but in a much more precise manner … to produce nutritious crops requiring much lower fertiliser inputs and with greater resilience. We need innovation to help us escape from the chemical treadmill of current agriculture. In the face of the climate emergency, doing nothing is no longer an option.”