It is not essential to create a brand new set of regulations for gene editing and food safety, according to the FAO.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reviewed food safety issues related to gene editing and said while approaches may vary, many countries have found a way to include gene-edited foods in an existing regulatory category to manage such issues.

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. 

Gene editing is a group of techniques that can be used to breed new plant varieties, animal breeds, and microbial strains for agricultural purposes. It can potentially increase food production and contribute to sustainability and climate change resilience.

Case-by-case assessment
The assessment found regulators had treated gene-edited organisms and food derived from them in the same way as novel foods, GMOs, or conventional products. Some countries require a case-by-case analysis of each product.

FAO said it was desirable to avoid setting rules and regulations on process and production methods that do not directly impact product safety.

“Including onerous requirements in the regulatory frameworks without a scientific basis should be avoided, otherwise the implementation of such regulations can become a burdensome compliance issue rather than the ultimate objective of consumer protection.”

A gene-edited high oleic soy was launched in 2019 in the United States and rice protected against bacterial blight disease was approved for cultivation by the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) in 2020.

There are a number of products being developed such as bananas protected against some viruses, cassava with reduced cyanide levels, gluten-free wheat, and pigs protected against African Swine Fever. 

A review of Codex guidelines showed that existing protocols such as food safety risk analysis and guidance on food safety assessment processes can be tailored and applied to the safety assessment of gene-edited foods.

The possible effects of gene editing on food safety, quality, and trade are not expected to be much different from what already exists on foods from pre-existing breeding techniques, said FAO.

English changes
England recently passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act covering precision-bred plants and animals. Precision breeding involves using technologies such as gene editing to adapt the genetic code of organisms. Stricter regulations remain in place for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The aim is to help farmers grow crops that are drought and disease resistant, reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and breed animals that are protected from catching diseases.

Gideon Henderson, Defra’s chief scientific adviser, said: “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 the development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes.”

There are no labeling requirements for precision-bred products under the act. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) will consult on new food and feed legislation and produce a risk assessment for precision-bred food and feed.

The European Commission is also working on a new regulatory approach for New Genomic Techniques (NGTs), which includes precision breeding. Precision breeding techniques for agriculture are not supported by the governments in Wales and Scotland. However, food produced using these methods in England can be sold in Scotland and Wales under the UK Internal Market Act.

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