Defra Secretary George Eustice has announced new plans to ‘unlock the power of gene editing’, albeit with the focus initially on crops, rather than livestock.
Defra’s response to the consultation published earlier this year on paving the way for the use of the technology in England sets out how it plans to ‘pave the way to enable use of gene editing technologies, which can help better protect the environment’.
But while gene editing can be applied to livestock – pigs have already been bred experimentally to be resistant to PRRS using the technology – Defra stressed that the focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.
Gene editing technologies provide a more precise way of introducing targeted genetic changes – making the same types of changes to plants and animals that occur more slowly naturally or through traditional breeding. It will enable farmers to breed crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment, helping farmers and reducing impacts on the environment, Defra said.
It is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes – but currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.
Defra said leaving the EU allows the UK to set its own rules and ‘adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies’. As a first step, the government will change the rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape and make research and development easier.
Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials, but the planned changes will ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing, to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.
The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding.
GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism.
The government will consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly. In the longer term, this will be followed by a review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly.
Defra stressed there will be no weakening of the UK’s ‘strong food safety standards’. Gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than their non-genetically modified counterparts.
Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. 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.”
The NPA’s response to the gene editing consultation highlighted the benefits the technology could bring for farm animal health and welfare.
Responding to Defra’s announcement today, NPA senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale said: “We’re very pleased that the Government is taking genetic technology policy forward because technologies such as gene editing are vital for the future of the pig industry – they could benefit not only our pig herd, but the environment and the British public also.
“The initial focus for government is plant research, which is a great first step, but we hope that Government can also look to develop the legislative foundation to drive the innovation and allow it to be applicable in the field.
“We also hope that, once established, the scope can be broadened to explore the opportunities in livestock.”
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “It is very encouraging to see the government’s view that new precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming, the environment and the public, and will be vital in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.
“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 in the event of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and benefiting the environment through more efficient use of resources.
“The NFU will be examining today’s announcement in detail and will work with Defra to ensure the right legislative system is in place, not only to drive research but also to provide a route to market for improved varieties and breeds.”
Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) said it was pleased that Defra recognises the need to give consideration to the animal welfare and ethical concerns raised during its consultation, meaning any changes to legislation to permit the gene editing of animals will come later.
Peter Stevenson, CIWF’s chief policy adviser, urged Defra ‘not to permit the gene editing of farm animals other than in the most exceptional circumstances’, claiming technology will ‘lead to serious animal welfare problems’.