GM crop regulation could help UK lead on food security, study says

The briefing sets out recent developments in using the GM method for crop improvement
The briefing sets out recent developments in using the GM method for crop improvement

Evidence-led GM crop regulation could help the UK lead on global food security and climate change, according to the Royal Society.

The UK needs an evidence-led and proportionate regulatory approach for GM crops to realise the technology’s benefits for agriculture, a new policy briefing says,

The Royal Society paper, published today (24 October), sets out recent developments in using the GM method for crop improvement.

This has seen the technology used in a growing number of countries to enhance resistance to pests and diseases, improve nutrition and elevate tolerance to heat and drought.

Genetic modification, for the purposes of UK crop regulation, involves moving genes between species and is regulated differently to other breeding technologies which make genetic changes within a species.

The paper says the UK’s leading plant scientists and expertise in commercial crop breeding mean it is 'well placed' to deliver the benefits of deploying this technology.

Discoveries made by UK scientists have already been commercialised in other countries, but not in the UK.

The Royal Society says a more supportive regulatory approach in the UK would boost innovation and result in new applications of GM methods that benefit the public and food security.

Earlier this year, the UK government sought to reduce regulatory barriers to genetic innovation for agriculture by passing the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which introduced a new framework in England for regulating crops that were gene edited.

However, the Act left GM crops under a regulatory regime inherited from the EU which has usually required extensive scientific and safety trials.

Satisfying these requirements is so expensive that only the largest companies can achieve regulatory approval, according to the paper.

The Royal Society argues this approach is no longer justified given the evidence from 30 years of commercial use that crops developed with GM methods are no more likely to pose unpredictable risks than crops resulting from other breeding technologies.

Instead, regulation should focus on assessing scientifically plausible risks given what is known about the GM trait and the species it was introduced into.

In adopting this approach, the UK can learn from other regulators that have greater experience with GM technology, such as the US, the paper says.

“We need to feed people properly without destroying the planet,” said Professor Jones, whose research spans a range of GM applications.

“Manufacturing and spraying fertilisers and pesticides results in a significant carbon footprint and collateral damage to non-target insects and the wider ecosystem.

“The lesson from countries that have used this technology for 30 years is that its potential risks can be regulated on the basis that they are predictable and specific to the change being made.”