Michael Gove has said that British scientists and farmers could “lead the way” on gene editing after the UK leaves the EU.
The Defra Secretary said that outside the EU, the UK could use gene editing technology to produce higher-yield crops that are resistant to diseases and resilient to climate change.
Mr Gove reportedly told the Country Land and Business Association's (CLA) conference last week: “Even if there are individual lobby groups that express their legitimate concerns we will ensure those scientific tools are there for those who can improve productivity in a genuinely sustainable way.
“Gene editing allows us to give mother nature a helping hand, to accelerate the process of evolution in a way which can significantly increase yield and also reduce our reliance on chemicals and other input.
“There is a potential there for Britain and our scientists and our farmers to lead the way.”
EU court ruling
Mr Gove's comments follow plant scientists urgently calling on policy makers in the UK and EU to safeguard gene-editing technologies for agriculture.
Leading researchers representing more than 75 European plant and life sciences research centres, including those from the UK's John Innes Centre, are said to be “deeply concerned” about a recent European Court of Justice ruling.
The ruling concerns modern genome editing techniques that could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding.
The plant scientists argue that British farmers may be deprived of a new generation of more climate resilient and nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to current ecological and societal challenges.
One of the latest breakthroughs in this field is precision breeding, an innovative crop breeding method based on genome editing.
Precision breeding can contribute to tailoring crops to a specific area, considering the environmental factors of a certain region.
But the Soil Association is urging Government to stay aligned with the court ruling and the scientific evidence which the charity says supports it.
Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy at the Soil Association, said: “Scientific research has long shown that these new gene-editing technologies give rise to similar uncertainties and risks as GM always has, and we would urge the government to ensure the UK stays aligned with the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that classed gene editing as a form of GM.
“This ruling was backed by strong scientific evidence, including the study published by leading journal Nature that shows the technique ‘causes many profound mutations and DNA damage’.”
She added: “Government should treat gene editing with great caution and, as promised, uphold the precautionary principle after Brexit.
“It isn’t a silver bullet and risks distracting us from the innovation needed to transition to genuinely sustainable, agroecological farming that can meet our 21st century challenges of feeding the population healthily and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.