The British government outlined new plans earlier this week to unlock the power of gene editing (GE) as a suite of tools to help farmers in the UK grow more resistant, nutritious and productive crops.
The plans were published as part of the government response to its recent consultation process.
No longer confined by EU regulations, the UK government plans to enable the use of GE technologies for breeding.
GE makes plant breeding faster, more precise and more efficient, with the aim to produce new varieties that are more nutritious, more resistant to pests and disease, more productive and carry traits that are more beneficial to the environment.
Fulfilling these objectives should help farmers and the environment.
One example of its use might be the breeding of crop varieties that are resistant to viruses.
This would decrease pesticide use, while maintaining higher yield potential in crops and potentially help protect bees and other pollinating insects.
Researchers recently found 14 genes that cause weight gain in humans and three that help prevent it
While there is little specific mention of its use in animals, it seems likely that some uses will be considered and it is probably only a matter of time before human ailments will be more specifically targeted by GE technology.
For example, researchers recently found 14 genes that cause weight gain in humans and three that help prevent it – this information opens the door to potential new treatments.
GE involves making desired changes to a plant or animal which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision.
Conventional breeding could take up to 15 years to do this, but GE can help reduce that timescale significantly.
GE vs GMO
Gene editing is different to genetic modification (GMO), in that it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species into a plant and creates new varieties in a way that is like those produced more slowly by the natural breeding processes.
However, GE is still regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms and this is not very appealing.
Having left the EU, the UK is free to set up its own rules governing GE. This means that it can adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies.
The report indicates that the government will first change the rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape and make research and development easier.
The main focus is set to be traits produced by genetic technologies which could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.
While the technology is being heralded as having huge potential, in its day, GMO was awarded similar accolades, but actually delivered relatively few traits to the market.
Scientists will still have to notify Defra of any research trials, but the planned changes will ease the research burden for development, using technologies such as GE to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.
The next step in this process will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism to exclude organisms produced by GE and other genetic technologies, providing the same traits could have been developed by traditional plant breeding. GMO regulations would continue to apply where GE introduces DNA from other species into an organism.
There will be no weakening of the UK’s food safety standards and GE foods will only 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.
Pace of progress
It seems likely that the pace of progress on GE in the UK is likely to be much faster than in the EU.
And with the UK being a significant supplier of new varieties for Irish producers, there are likely to be big question marks as to whether we may lose access to potentially new UK-bred varieties because GE may be happening in the background.
The move might also cause British grain imports into Ireland to be questioned because of the likelihood that any batch may contain a GE trait, which is still treated as a GMO in EU legislation.