Green light for gene-editing in England

1st October 2021 | Plant Breeding, R&D, Technology, UK Policy & Regulation

Government has unveiled the first steps towards the use of gene-editing (GE) in England, through its first response to the consultation over the technology earlier this year. The move has been broadly welcomed by the agrifood sector.

Academic laboratory exploring new methods of plant breeding

Defra says the first step will be to change the rules relating to gene-editing by cutting red tape and making research and development easier. It will focus on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods. Researchers will still be required to notify Defra of any trials using genetic technologies.

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, in order to exclude organisms produced by gene-editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. The current genetic modification regulations would continue to apply where gene-editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism.

Defra will also consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene-edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly, with a longer-term review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly.

Defra secretary George Eustice says that the UK’s leaving the EU allows the UK to set its own rules, including a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies. But he warns this will not be at the expense of the UK’s “very highest” standards of environmental and food safety. “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 minister adds that 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.

Chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders, Samantha Brooke calls the move the most significant policy breakthrough in UK plant breeding for more than 20 years.

“Changing the way new agricultural breeding technologies are regulated, by taking gene-editing out of the scope of GMO rules, will encourage research and innovation to develop healthier, more nutritious food, and to make farming systems more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change. Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding to improve its yield, nutritional quality, or resistance to disease can take up to 15 years. However, gene-editing can help reduce that timescale significantly. This is why this change in legislation is so important.

“Current regulations on plant breeding and seeds support safer and more sustainable food production, and this regulatory system can also embrace new crop varieties produced using gene-editing techniques, which replicate what plant breeders are already doing, but in a much quicker and more targeted way.

“We strongly welcome government’s plan to make controls on gene-editing more science-based. This sends a clear signal that the UK is set on a more pro-innovation trajectory outside the EU. It will certainly boost prospects for plant breeding companies large and small, as well as scientists in the public sector, to continue improving our food crops for the benefit of society and the environment,” she concludes.

For the AIC, chief executive Robert Sheasby welcomes the government announcement. “There are a great number of challenges facing agriculture and food production in the UK that more efficient breeding technologies could help address,” he notes. “We should by no means consider GE and GMO applications as the only answer to challenges in our climate and food systems. However, we cannot, and should not, overlook the possible opportunities across all sectors. With pressures across a variety of systems, we must be prepared to consider all the available technologies available to us, in order to meet net zero requirements in a rapidly changing market.”

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The AIC response to the original consultation had identified three broad themes for future innovation in GE and GMOs – Environmental outcomes, enabling plant health, livestock feed and seed breeding to minimise emissions and disease spread, whilst allowing new varieties and breeds adapted to the challenges of climate change; Meeting the needs of consumer and animal nutrition through innovation to address nutritional challenges in crops and livestock, as well as eliminating allergens and helping to reduce food waste; and Diversity – addressing concern over diminishing genetic diversity in crops and livestock. The new technologies could allow the fundamental readdressing of the availability of crop varieties and types available to farmers and the food chain.

Outgoing NIAB chief executive Dr Tina Barsby OBE, who had co-ordinated an industry lobby to support the gene-editing in the UK said: “This announcement sends an important signal that Britain is adopting a more pro-science approach outside the EU, aligning our rules with other countries such as Japan, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, and boosting prospects for inward investment and international research collaboration given the UK’s strengths in genetic science.

“For British farmers, virus yellows resistance in sugar beet is an obvious early target since the withdrawal of neonicotinoid seed dressings has left the crop vulnerable to massive yield losses. Here at NIAB we are also keen to explore the potential for gene-editing to transform the performance of leguminous crops such as faba beans and soybeans under UK growing conditions. These are neglected crops in terms of breeding effort, and yet the economic, environmental and climate change opportunities presented by these break crops, as a nitrogen-fixing source of home-grown, plant-based protein for human and livestock consumption, are hugely significant.”

“Innovation in plant breeding will be the single most important factor in helping global food supplies keep pace with a growing world population in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources of land, water, energy and biodiversity. It could also support prospects for agroecological approaches to farming and food production – organic sector bodies in particular should keep an open mind on the potential benefits,” she notes.

For the NFU, vice-president Tom Bradshaw says the NFU will work with Defra to ensure the right legislative system is in place – “not only to drive research but also to provide a route to market for improved varieties and breeds. We also urge government to provide the necessary researchers and companies with a clear timetable. The government will also need to work closely with the devolved administrations to deliver something which works for the whole of the UK.

“We know gene-editing is not a silver bullet,” he adds. “But if we are to make this a success, any new government regulation must be robust, fit for purpose and based on sound science. This will in turn provide public confidence, enable diverse and accessible innovation, and allow investment in products for the UK market.