A comment period has been launched in England regarding gene editing of crops and livestock.

The plans were announced by Environment Secretary George Eustice at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference.

Gene editing is different from genetic modification where DNA from one species is introduced to another one. Gene edited organisms produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods.

Currently, farmers and growers choose to breed stronger, healthier individual animals or plants so the next generation has these beneficial traits. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) comment period, also known as a consultation, runs for 10 weeks from Jan. 7 to March 17. Depending on the results, there could be legislative change in the next one to two years.

Move follows EU exit
Because of a ruling from the European Court of Justice in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification. However, now the UK has left the EU the rules can be changed. Defra’s view is that organisms produced by gene editing or other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.

Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Japan believe certain gene edited organisms should not be regulated as genetic modified organisms (GMOs). In the U.S., one gene edited product on the market is a soybean oil.

Eustice said gene editing can harness the genetic resources that Mother Nature has provided.

“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 said.

The consultation will also start collecting evidence on updating the approach to genetic modified organisms by gathering information on what controls are needed and how to deliver them.

Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific advisor, said the authority would continue to apply strict controls on genetically modified crops, seeds and food.

“As with all novel foods, gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods,” said May.

Cautious but positive reaction
Tom Bradshaw, National Farmers Union vice president, said precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have the potential to offer benefits to UK farming.

“These new tools could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events, as well as reducing our impact through a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste,” he said.

“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. 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.”

Bradshaw also said transparency and trust in the regulation of biotechnologies, such as gene editing, are essential for safe and effective precision breeding.

Adrian Ely, from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said gene editing includes a set of technologies, each with their own characteristics and considerations.

“Claims about gene editing’s benefits for the UK’s nature and the environment are subject to numerous assumptions and uncertainties. We need to take the time to consider these carefully, rather than accepting them without interrogation,” he said.

“WTO rules prohibit us from regulating the safety of foods differently on the basis of whether they are produced domestically or come from overseas. Allowing gene editing in the UK would require us to open up indiscriminately to GE food imports from around the world.”

Professor Huw Jones, chair in Translational Genomics for Plant Breeding at Aberystwyth University, said in its simplest form, gene editing is a speedier way to find the genetic variation made by natural processes.

“It is important to get public buy-in to transparent and proportionate frameworks for its safe use in future sustainable farming and food systems,” Jones said.

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