The UK government is to relax the regulation of gene-edited crops to enable commercial growing in England.
The plants will be tested and evaluated in the same manner as conventional new varieties.
The changes are possible because the UK is no longer bound by the strictest regulations in the world imposed by the European Union.
The Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments will be able to choose whether to accept or reject the changes.
Environment Secretary George Eustice stated that he would collaborate closely with farming and environmental groups to help grow plants that are more resilient to climate change.
“Gene editing has the potential to make use of nature’s genetic resources. It is a tool that has the potential to assist us in addressing some of the most difficult challenges we face.”
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Gene-edited (GE) crops have much simpler genetic changes than genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops frequently involve the addition of extra genes, sometimes from entirely different species, and, in some cases, the insertion of DNA from animals.
Gene-edited crops, on the other hand, frequently have genes snipped out of them, producing new varieties within months that could have been produced by traditional cross-breeding but over a longer period of time.
Scientists believe that gene editing can be used to create more nutritious and productive fruits, vegetables, and cereals, as well as hardier varieties that can withstand the extreme weather caused by climate change.
Regulations in the European Union require that gene-edited crops be treated the same as genetically modified crops.
These rules require a series of field trials over a number of years, as well as extensive food safety tests.
The final hurdle is for member states to vote on whether or not to approve a new variety.
Because biotech companies regard this approach as too onerous and costly, no genetically modified crops are developed in the European Union.
The Westminster government’s strategy begins with separating the laws that govern GE and GM crops.
As a first step, legislation will be passed later this year that will eliminate the need for scientists to apply for a permit to conduct open-air trials of a gene-edited crop that could have been produced through traditional cross-breeding.
At the moment, the approvals process can take up to two months and cost thousands of pounds.
The more significant change will occur next year, when legislation will be introduced to allow simple gene-edited crops to be regulated in the same way as any new commercial variety.
The government is considering what measures, such as labelling and traceability, would be necessary to maintain consumer choice.
In the long run, ministers will review England’s regulatory approach to all genetically modified organisms. This includes modifications that may permit the commercial development and farming of gene-edited and genetically modified animals. Such animals can be bred to be more productive, resistant to certain diseases, and even more tolerant of hot weather.
Many scientists in the field have reacted positively to the news.
Prof Helen Sang is a researcher at The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where scientists have created gene-edited pigs that are resistant to a type of lung disease.
“Wednesday’s announcement is a first step toward removing unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers to the use of precise and targeted advanced breeding techniques that allow us to make specific genetic changes,” she said.
“Adopting a more proportionate and enabling regulatory approach will increase opportunities for international research collaboration, inward investment, and technology-based exports, providing a significant boost to UK science.”
Dr Helen Wallace of the campaign Group Genewatch, on the other hand, described the changes as a “weakening of standards meant to protect human health and the environment.”
“People will not be duped. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They can have unintended consequences whether they are made using new or old techniques.
“For more than 40 years, GM crops that can withstand climate change have been promised but never delivered. 90% of today’s GM crops are engineered to withstand blanket spraying with weedkillers that are toxic to butterflies and frogs. New gene-edited crops will be no different, causing the same environmental issues.”
The government, according to Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, “wants to trade the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all.”
“This announcement is described as a response to Defra’s consultation on genetic technology regulation. However, no information has been provided about what George Eustice actually learned from the exercise.
“The consultation submissions received by GM Freeze raised a wide range of concerns about Defra’s proposals to dismantle GM safeguards, but this announcement suggests the minister isn’t listening.”