Gene editing is a way of altering DNA in a cell, it can be used to turn genes on or off without altering their sequence and offers the potential for rapidly introducing beneficial traits within crop plant. It is also controversial and needs a strong ethical and regulatory framework if it is to be widely introduced. To reflect this the government has announced at the Oxford Farming Conference 2021 its intention to hold a consultation on gene editing.
Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, 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. I welcome the DEFRA consultation that will help with a broader assessment of gene editing as an appropriate technology in agriculture.”
The way that plants and animals grow is controlled by the information in their genes. For centuries, farmers and growers have carefully chosen to breed stronger, healthier individual animals or plants so that the next generation has these beneficial traits – but this is a slow process. Gene editing promises a way to accelerate this process.
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. However, at the moment, due to a legal ruling from the European Court of Justice in 2018 gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification.
So the consultation announced today will focus on looking at how certain gene editing organisms are regulated, so that modifications that could have been occurred naturally or through traditional breeding are not regulated in the same way as genetic modification.
This approach has already been adopted by a number of countries including Japan, Australia and Argentina.
Aside from gene editing, the consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the UK’s approach to genetic modification by gathering information on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them. To ensure regulations are in step with the current science and the knowledge gained from 30 years of existing regulation.
Highest food safety standards
In his speech Environment Secretary George Eustice said that the government will 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.
Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor, welcomed the consultation and 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.”
Consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public is the beginning of this process which, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinised and approved by Parliament.
Consultation on gene editing
The consultation will run for ten weeks from Thursday 7th January to Weds 17 March at 23:59. The full consultation document will shortly be available on Citizen Space when published at 00:15 and applies to England only.
More information is available here https://consult.defra.gov.uk/agri-food-chain-directorate/the-regulation-of-genetic-technologies/