New rules 'must go further' to unlock potential of gene-edited foods

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park - Credit: John Innes Centre

New rules aimed at making it easier to develop "gene-edited" foods do not go far enough to unlock their full potential, said Norfolk crop scientists.

The government has announced a simplified trials process for gene editing, which allows scientists to alter beneficial traits within plant or animal species much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding.

It says this could speed the development of stronger, healthier crops and livestock which could be more nutritious, higher-yielding or resistant to pests and diseases.

The rule changes will allow field trials of gene edited crops without having to go through a licensing process that takes a couple of months and costs researchers £5,000 to £10,000 - although scientists will still have to inform Defra of their work.

The move is the first stage of an approach that could eventually see gene edited foods sold on UK supermarket shelves in the future - although that could take several years, and would also require decisions to be made on how they would be labelled.

Crop scientists on the Norwich Research Park said this process needed to happen much faster.

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, said: “While Defra’s announcement is a step forward for crop trials, it is disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development.

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“The benefits of these technologies will only be realised if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers. 

"It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat.”

Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group leader at the Earlham Institute, also on the Norwich Research Park, agreed the announcement "does not go far or fast enough". 

"The government must bring forward modern, progressive and proportionate regulations to allow gene edited products to be brought to market and provide consumer confidence," she said.

"The UK is already home to some of the best plant scientists in the world. Removing some of the barriers for developing gene-edited crops will help UK scientists progress their research - but continuing to prevent the commercial application of their research risks starving plant science of the critical investment needed."

Defra says gene editing technologies could help scientists develop stronger and more resilient food crops

Defra says gene editing technologies could help scientists develop stronger and more resilient food crops - Credit: Nick Butcher

The government is also planning a broader review of GM regulation in the longer term, which was welcomed by Prof Jonathan Jones of The Sainsbury Laboratory

He said: "The government must not miss the opportunity to facilitate use of this benign and helpful method for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, and I look forward to seeing this reassessment implemented."

Government officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and the controversial process of genetic modification (GM), in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.

Following an EU ruling in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms - but environment secretary George Eustice said this could be changed now the UK has left the bloc.

Environment secretary George Eustice

Environment secretary George Eustice - Credit: UK Parliament

Mr Eustice said: "Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.

"We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place."

National Farmers' Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said it was "very encouraging" to see changes in gene editing legislation which could offer "huge benefits to UK farming".

“These new tools could help in a number of ways, from addressing pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals and improving animal health and welfare, to increasing farmers’ resilience to extreme weather events such as flooding and drought," he said.

But Liz O'Neill, director of campaign group GM Freeze, said: "Genetic engineering, whatever you choose to call it, needs to be properly regulated.

"The UK government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all but our food, our farms and the natural environment deserve better."

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