The United Kingdom government is to change the rules relating to gene editing to allow use of the technology.

The plans were published as part of the government’s response to the gene editing consultation by Environment Secretary George Eustice. The first step is to cut red tape and make research and development easier now that the UK has left the European Union.

Eustice said the gene editing focus will first be on plants.

“It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place.”

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. A longer term goal is to review England’s approach to GMO regulation and review gene editing in animals.

Protect food safety, quality and standards
A review of the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism will see if organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies can be excluded if they could have been developed by traditional breeding.

The government insisted there will be no weakening of food safety standards. Gene edited foods will only be allowed if they are judged to not be a risk to health, not mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than their non-genetically modified counterparts.

Rules will apply to England with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland able to make their own decisions. The European Commission is also looking at changing gene editing legislation.

Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, said it supports giving consumers a choice and recognizes the potential benefits that gene edited plants and animals may bring to the food system.

“We are working closely with colleagues in Defra and other key stakeholders both inside and outside of government, to ensure that the way we regulate genetic technologies is appropriate and robust, and crucially meets our objectives of prioritizing food safety and protecting consumers,” May said.

Scientists will need to notify Defra of any research field trials. Plant breeding could be made more resistant to pests and disease and it would reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

Reaction mostly positive
Gideon Henderson, Defra chief scientific advisor, said varieties can be produced that are healthier to eat and more resistant to climate change.

“Gene editing technologies provide a more precise way of introducing targeted genetic changes — making the same types of changes to plants and animals that occur more slowly naturally or through traditional breeding. These tools enable us to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years,” he said.

Guy Poppy, professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton and former FSA chief scientific advisor, said gene editing has the potential to improve agriculture and environmental and human health.

“However, whilst I understand why Defra propose a proportionate step-by-step process, I do fear that the travel along that path will be slow, complex and fraught with continuing claims and counter-claims,” Poppy said.

Professor Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, welcomed the announcement but said it was disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development.

“The benefits of these technologies will only be realized if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers. It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat,” Sanders said.

Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, said: “Genetic engineering — whatever you choose to call it — needs to be properly regulated. The UK Government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all but our food, our farms and the natural environment deserve better.”

Low public awareness and future potential
A survey earlier this year published by the FSA found consumers had very low awareness and knowledge of genome edited food. The more informed people were, or became, the more accepting of it they were despite some still having concerns.

Genome editing is also the subject of a “POSTnote” with work expected to start in October. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) produces peer-reviewed briefings to make scientific research accessible to the UK parliament.

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