New legislation seeking to unlock gene-editing technologies in order to boost UK food security will return to parliament today.
The Third Reading of the Genetic Technology Bill is scheduled for Monday (31 October) and is expected to be introduced in the House of Lords the following day.
The government said the legislation, a major departure from EU policy, would introduce a "more proportionate and science-based regulatory system" for precision-bred plants and animals.
For example, the bill would enable scientists to spearhead the development of crops that are more resilient against disease and the effects of climate change.
Defra farming minister Mark Spencer said British scientists were 'leading the world' in precision breeding, with the bill putting "Britain at the forefront of agri-research".
"We are already seeing how new genetic technologies can increase yields, make our food more nutritious and result in crops that are more resistant to disease and weather extremes," he said.
The bill covers precision-bred plants and animals developed through techniques such as gene editing, where the genetic changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.
This is different to genetic modification (GM), which produces organisms containing additional genes.
The post-Brexit law change means that scientists will be able to undertake research and development using gene editing, which remains banned in the EU.
Environmental groups are critical of gene editing, as they believe the technique is only a rebranding of newer forms of genetic modification.
They have called on the UK to stay aligned with the 2018 European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that classed gene editing as a form of GM.
The RSPCA recently warned that "now is not the time to be relaxing the regulations" as the long-term consequences of using the technologies was not known.
The charity added there were "more ethical and humane ways" to solve issues in the farming industry "without pushing farm animals even further towards their physical limits".
But Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Gideon Henderson, said precision breeding was a 'powerful and important tool' to help tackle the challenges of biodiversity and climate change.
"The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes."
He added: “For centuries, traditional breeders have made use of our understanding of genetics to breed plant varieties with desirable characteristics.
"Gene editing allows precision breeding to make the same type of genetic changes in a far more efficient and precise way, significantly reducing the time needed to create new varieties."
If the bill is passed, the government would remove plants and animals produced through precision breeding technologies from regulatory requirements applicable to the environmental release and marketing of GMOs.
The government would also introduce two notification systems; one for precision bred organisms used for research purposes and the other for marketing purposes.
A regulatory system for precision bred animals to ensure animal welfare is safeguarded would also be established.