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Boris Johnson's support for GM crops is welcomed by Norfolk scientists

A blight-resistant GM potato has been developed at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. Prof Jonathan Jones and Dr Marina Pais looking at crops in the greenhouse. Photo: Steve Adams

A blight-resistant GM potato has been developed at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. Prof Jonathan Jones and Dr Marina Pais looking at crops in the greenhouse. Photo: Steve Adams

Copyright Archant Norfolk 2016

Norfolk's crop scientists are cautiously optimistic of a long-awaited rule change after the new prime minister appeared to pave the way for GM (genetically modified) crops on the steps of Downing Street.

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: John Innes Centre.Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: John Innes Centre.

Boris Johnson, making his first speech as prime minister outside Number 10, said: "Let's start now to liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let's develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world."

That stance was welcomed at the Norwich Research Park, where GM technology has been used to build beneficial improvements into crop plants - but current EU restrictions prevent them being employed in Europe.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to resist the devastating disease of blight, and remove the need for the intensive use of chemical sprays currently used to control it.

As well as crop protection, GM is also being used to enhance crop quality at the neighbouring John Innes Centre - for example, another trial is under way for a genetically-modified wheat variety which can produce white flour with extra iron, potentially bringing health benefits to anaemia sufferers.

More than 20 years after they were first introduced in the USA, opponents of GM crops still claim the health and environment implications of the technology have yet to be properly tested, and that any benefits have not been sufficiently proven to justify the expense of the research.

But Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, said it was able to unlock rapid improvements in yield, resilience and nutrition - which would not be possible conventional plant breeding - and that the regulation should focus on the end product, rather than the process.

"The prime minister's statement is very welcome indeed," he said. "We need to take a fresh look at the regulatory framework that has been holding back so many of the potential societal benefits the UK bioscience sector can offer to agriculture in the UK and globally. Among the many potential benefits from modern genetic technologies is dramatic reduction in agrichemical use, especially as this relates to pesticides and fertilisers.

READ MORE: Norwich crop scientists demand urgent rethink of EU gene editing rules

"Where I would urge caution is that we shouldn't throw all regulation out of the window. The important thing to be regulated is the product, not the method through which we get there. An approach to regulation based on what is produced rather than on technologies used to deliver the product would be very sensible."

Prof Sanders also warned that the UK's post-Brexit approach to GM regulation must also consider the export destination of the resulting products.

"We export a lot of food to Europe so if the view in Europe, by the public or the regulators, is that they will stop importing food from the UK because we have such a liberal regime that food will become 'contaminated' with GM, that has to be taken into account," he said.

"This reinforces the notion that the UK scientific community has to join forces and stand shoulder to shoulder with our European colleagues, as we have done on the issue of genome editing, to get the fresh look at regulation that is needed."

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