Government sends gene-edited food bill to Parliament

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Wheat that has been gene edited to recreate a mutation found only once in nature which increases grain size and so has the potential to boost yields.Image source, JIC
Image caption,
A wheat that has been gene edited in Hertfordshire to recreate a mutation found only once in nature which increases grain size. It could soon be grown and used to make bread for sale in English shops

The government introduces a bill to Parliament on Wednesday paving the way for genetically edited plants and animals to be grown and raised for food in England.

The proposed new legislation would relax regulations for gene-edited, not genetically modified (GM) products and would at first apply only to plants.

The technology is currently not used because of rules set by the European Union. But Brexit has given the UK the ability to set its own rules.

Gene editing involves switching genes on and off in an organism by snipping out a small piece of DNA.

It can lead to the production of varieties that could also be produced through traditional cross-breeding methods, but much more quickly.

Critics, such as Liz O'Neill, who is director of GM Freeze, say that the new regulations take away much needed scrutiny.

"What has been removed is the need for an independent risk assessment and the need for transparency," she said.

Many biotech and agricultural researchers lobbied for the government to go further and legislate for the commercial use of GM crops, but ministers decided to adopt a more cautious approach.

The older process of GM involves adding genes, sometimes from a different species. Scientific studies have shown both technologies to be safe and GM crops have been grown outside of the EU for 25 years.

The government believes that gene editing will lead to crops that are resistant to pests and diseases and more resilient to the impact of climate change. The aim is to boost productivity and increase food security.

The UK has some of the best gene technology researchers and the government hopes that relaxation of the law will lead to the creation of new foods and new businesses.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs conducted a public consultation on the issue shortly after the UK's departure from the EU in 2020. Environment Secretary George Eustice told BBC news that he believes that there was sufficient support to introduce gene-editing methods for plant breeding - referred to as "precision breeding".

But Defra's own polling on the issue shows that public support for the technology is not overwhelming: 57 per cent of people said the use of GE crops was acceptable with 32 per cent believing it to be unacceptable. Support increased to up to 70 per cent in favour for some environmentally beneficial applications, such as reduced use of pesticides and herbicides.

There was less support for the use of gene editing on animals because the technology might cause suffering. Gene editing can be used to produce livestock resistant to disease which would benefit both the animals and the farmers. But there are concerns that the technology could be used to boost farm productivity at the expense of animal welfare.

It is for this reason that the bill would not immediately allow gene-edited animals, although it would give ministers powers to introduce it when they were satisfied that the regulation was sufficient to ensure that livestock would not suffer.

Image source, Acceligen
Image caption,
A heat-resistant US dairy calf gene edited to sweat more

Rules governing research into gene-edited plants were relaxed last month as it did not require new laws to be passed by Parliament.

Prof Johnathan Napier planted the first gene-edited seeds approved by the new process last week at Rothamsted Research in experimental plots last week.

"Ultimately, society is going to benefit from new discoveries of better crops and more nutritious food," he told BBC News. "All these things have been promised, but making it easier to get into the field will mean that we will see more delivery of those promises."

Image caption,
Prof Johnathan Napier is the first UK researcher to sow gene engineered seeds under the new regulation

Jo Lewis, policy director of the organic food body the Soil Association, was critical of the bill, saying it: "avoids dealing head-on with the transformation needed in our food and farming system for true security and resilience.

"We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues - unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.

He said history had proven that gene editing's predecessor GM "only benefits a minority of big businesses with a major rise in controlling crop patents and unwelcome, profitable traits such as herbicide-resistant weeds."

The National Farmers Union vice president, David Exwood welcomed the change.

"This science-based legislative change has the potential to offer a number of benefits to UK food production and to the environment and will provide farmers and growers with another tool in the toolbox as we look to overcome the challenges of feeding an ever-growing population while tackling the climate crisis."

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