Government gives green light to gene editing

Plans to loosen the rules on gene editing of crops in the UK have received a mixed response.

This week, the government responded to its own gene editing consultation by setting out plans to enable the use of technologies which it said could help better protect the environment.

Gene editing is different from genetic modification, as it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species. The government said the technologies would make plant breeding more precise and efficient, allowing the production of crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment.

The move was welcomed by the National Farmers Union (NFU) as “an important first step towards a properly functioning legislative system” for gene editing technologies.

“These new tools could help in a number of ways, from addressing pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals and improving animal health and welfare, to increasing farmers’ resilience in the event of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and benefiting the environment through more efficient use of resources. This would mean lower emissions and less waste, allowing British farmers to farm more sustainably and profitably,” said NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw.

Campaigners, however, questioned why the decision had been taken before the results of a public consultation, undertaken earlier this year, have been published.

Sustain, the food and farming alliance, said campaigner concerns focused mainly around the importance of ensuring that gene-editing is well regulated and that impact assessments on environmental, health, social and economic factors are part of the process.

"Genetic engineering - or 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,” said Liz O'Neil from GM Freeze, a Sustain Alliance member.

Defra chief scientific advisor Gideon Henderson insisted there would be no weakening of the UK’s current food safety standards. “Gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than their non-genetically modified counterparts,” he said.

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