Defra Secretary George Eustice has unveiled Government plans to change the laws in England to allow gene editing research to be used in the breeding of crops and livestock, backed by strong health and safety rules.
Speaking at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, Mr Eustice said 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.
The technology is already in use in plant and livestock breeding in some parts of the world and research suggests it could have significant long-term benefits – for example, it has been shown to produce pigs that are resistant to damaging diseases such as PRRS and African swine fever.
At the moment, following a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification, meaning it it has not been possible to get approval for it in animal or plant breeding.
Defra said 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 is different to genetic modification where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one. Gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from different species, and instead only produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods.
The consultation, launched today, proposes changing these rules in England to stop 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.
Mr Eustice said the Government would 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.
He 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.”
He said consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public was the beginning of this process which, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinised and approved by Parliament.
The consultation was welcomed Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
He 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.”
Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, also welcome the Defra consultation, which he said would help with a broader assessment of gene editing as an appropriate technology in agriculture.
He said: “The overwhelming view in public sector scientists is that the Nobel Prize winning methods for gene editing can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture.”
Aside from gene editing, the consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating our approach to genetic modification by gathering information on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them.
The consultation, which will run for ten weeks from today, can be viewed HERE
During his speech, Mr Eustice also paid tribute to the farming industry after a challenging year in which it continued to feed the nation during the COVID-19 crisis, and to discuss the beginning of the Agricultural Transition Period announced in November.
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.
“In our drive to achieve net zero by 2040, these new tools could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events, as well as reducing our impact through a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.
“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.
“Certainty, transparency and trust in the regulation of biotechnologies, such as gene editing, are essential for farmers and industry, society and scientists, so that safe and effective precision breeding can be delivered as part of a thriving, knowledge-based, food and farming sector and we look forward to responding to this government consultation in detail.
“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 NPA welcomed the consultation, stressing that the technology could deliver long-term benefits for pig production.
In the NPA’s response to the Nuffield Council of Bioethics’ call for evidence on genome editing in September 2019, NPA senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale said: “The opportunities for application are long. We might be in a better place to tackle diseases such as ASF and PRRS and we might be able to reduce emissions in pig production or exploit nutritional availability in feed better.”
The response highlighted the need for changes in the approach to regulating and developing the technology.
“A few countries have made small steps to utilising this technology, but these have been limited. Our industry cannot be disadvantaged by a lack of access to such a tool and any future policy must be clear not to breach ethical boundaries, but to have flexibility to allow the use of the technology to be exploited to its full potential. Any future developments are reliant on support for the research required to explore the opportunities available,” Ms Veale added.
She called for leadership to ‘properly communicate the value of this technology through the supply chain to the consumer, and also to manage expectations’.
Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) chief executive Christopher Price said: “All breeds of livestock evolve by selective breeding over time, and so as well as traditional breeding techniques, assisted by the longstanding use of reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer, the newer techniques of genomic assessment and manipulation are playing increasing roles.
“Whilst there may be benefits for food, farming and conservation from the use of genome editing in farmed animals, we doubt that as the science develops, technological capability will be the limiting factor in its use. Rather it will be demand, public acceptability. animal health and welfare, environmental factors.
“As matters stand, we consider that there is potential for genome editing in the limited circumstances of a deleterious mutation threatening a breed’s survival, or there being an inadequate breeding population; however, there are greater risks to livestock biodiversity from the unplanned use of the technology.
“Accordingly, RBST will be engaging with Government to ensure any changes to the regulatory framework meet identified needs and maintain all necessary checks and balances.”