Government to relax regulations on research into gene-edited crops
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 29/09/2021
The government is set to relax rules to make it easier to research and develop gene-edited food crops, but some experts have urged caution over the move.
Gene editing makes changes to the traits of plants or animals more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding and the government said it could help breed more nutritious or pest and disease-resistant crops.
The move could see the development of crops such as sugar beet which are resistant to viruses that impact yields without using pesticides, or foods from which chemical compounds that are harmful to human health have been removed.
The changes will allow field trials of gene-edited crops without having to go through a licensing process, which can take a couple of months and costs researchers £5,000 to £10,000.
Scientists will still have to inform the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of their work, but the move is the first stage of an approach that could see gene-edited goods sold in UK supermarkets.
It comes despite 87% of responses to a government consultation raised concerns that the risk of gene editing was greater than traditional breeding and should continue to be regulated as genetically modified organisms.
But views from academic institutes and public bodies reflected a view that there was no greater risk.
Officials and scientists drew a distinction between gene editing – which involves the manipulation of genes in a single species – and genetic modification – where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.
A 2018 European Union ruling means gene editing has been regulated in the same way as genetic modification, something Environment Secretary George Eustice said could change now the UK has left the union.
“It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss,” he said.
“Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.”
When the consultation was announced The Food and Drinks Federation (FDF) welcomed it but warned it could create hurdles for farmers exporting goods to the EU.
Speaking to Sky News in January, Helen Munday, chief scientific officer of the FDF, said: “If Europe has a different view on this that may mean there are some barriers to trading products that are produced in this way.”
The next step following the rule change is primary legislation to change the definitions of genetically modified organisms, to exclude gene-edited crops or livestock that can be created – more slowly – by traditional means.
This would allow commercial marketing of gene-edited products without genetic modification regulation but they may still be subject to other rules about selling foods.
The government is also planning a review of regulation covering genetically modified organisms in the longer term.
But, it said foods will only be allowed to be sold if it is judged that they do not present a health risk, do not mislead consumers and do not have a lower nutritional value.
It could take several years for gene-edited products to arrive on the shelves and a decision will need to be made on how they are labelled.
Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, said: “There are significant benefits to changing the way we regulate genetic technologies, to make sure the system is as up to date as possible and properly takes into account new technologies and scientific discoveries.”
But sustainable food and farming body, The Soil Association, warned gene-edited crops could be patented for corporate interests and called for better regulation of genetic research and more support for farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming methods.
Joanna Lewis, Soil Association director of policy and strategy said: “Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place, including a lack of crop diversity, the decline in beneficial insects, and animal overcrowding.
“We must increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.”
Liz O’Neill, the director of GM Freeze accused Mr Eustice of not listening to concerns raised during the consultation and said “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,” she said.
Dr Penny Hundleby, a senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, believes the rule change is a “cautious step in the right direction”, but it “falls short in allowing this technology to be used to improve crops for the benefit of the environment and consumers”.
© Sky News 2020