Defra unveils gene editing goals in departure from EU policy

The consultation looks at permitting the use of gene-edited crops and livestock in England
The consultation looks at permitting the use of gene-edited crops and livestock in England

The government has unveiled a consultation on the UK's future gene editing policy in a bid to help farmers and growers boost food production.

Defra Secretary George Eustice will highlight the benefits of the technology at the Oxford Farming Conference today (7 January) in what is seen as a major departure from EU policy.

The European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that gene editing should be subject to the same regulations as genetic modification, a move labelled as 'flawed' by Mr Eustice.

The 10-week consultation looks at how gene editing could 'help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food'.

The way that plants and animals grow is controlled by the information in their genes. For centuries, farmers 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.

Technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited much more quickly to mimic the natural breeding process.

But environmental groups have warned that the long-term health and environmental impacts of GM crops engineered with gene editing are as yet untested.

Defra's consultation will focus on stopping certain gene editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding.

This approach has been adopted by a countries including Japan, Australia and Argentina.

Defra said it would work with farming and environmental groups to 'develop the right rules and ensure robust controls'.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Eustice will say: "Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age.

"This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change."

He will add: "Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress.

"Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation."

The NFU welcomed the consultation, as new precision breeding techniques had the 'potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming'.

“New biotechnologies are also enabling the development of foods with much more direct benefit to the public, such as healthier oils, higher vitamin content and products with a longer shelf life," NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said.

“We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future.”

The consultation will run for ten weeks from 7 January to 17 March 2021.