Gene editing: 5 things you need to know about the government’s reforms

DEFRA has announced plans to relax the regulation of gene edited crops to ‘cut red tape’ for research and enable commercial growing in England. Here’s what you need to know.

Gene editing: 5 things you need to know. Photograph: Getty Images Gene editing: 5 things you need to know. Photograph: Getty Images

1. What is gene editing?

Gene editing is a scientific tool which allows changes to be made to a plant or animal, which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision.

Environment secretary George Eustice has said that gene editing has the ability to “harness the genetic resources that nature has provided” and could help England “tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss”.

This could include producing hardier crops that can withstand warmer temperatures.

It is different from genetic modification in that it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species. However, while the UK was part of the EU, gene editing was strictly regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the government is now keen to make use of Brexit and “set our own rules”.

2. DEFRA is going to relax regulation on research by the end of this year 

The government has said its first focus will be on plants and “unlocking research” to enable scientists to develop knowledge on gene editing and “drive innovation” in farming. 

DEFRA said it intends to use existing powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to lay a statutory instrument by the end of this year. This would make research on gene editing plants easier, removing the need for scientists to apply for a licence to carry out open-air trials of a gene edited crop.

However, scientists will still need to notify DEFRA of any trials.

3. Definitions of a GMO to be reviewed next year

The government response to its gene editing consultation, it lays out that following this initial relaxation, DEFRA will seek to review the regulatory definitions of a GMO, so that it could exclude certain gene-edited organisms if they could feasibly have been produced otherwise through traditional breeding. This would mean these crops could be regulated in the same way as any new variety for commercial development.

The government will also consider the appropriate measures needed to bring these crops to market, such as how they would need to be labelled to ensure continued consumer choice. A broader review of GMO regulation will follow the initial steps to be taken over the next year, the government says, and this “will also consider issues relating to the gene editing of animals”. 

4. Scientists have broadly welcomed the news

The chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders Samantha Brooke has strongly welcomed DEFRA’s plan “to make controls on gene editing more science-based”. She said this would send a “clear signal that the UK is set on a more pro-innovation trajectory outside the EU” and will boost prospects for plant breeding businesses, and scientists. 

Professor Helen Sang OBE, who heads up the functional genetics and development division at the The Roslin Institute - where researchers have worked on gene-edited pigs that are resistant to a type of lung disease - has echoed this. She said that gene editing offers the opportunity to “address the combined challenges of rapidly increasing global demand for healthy and nutritious food, with the goal of net zero carbon emissions”.

5. But not everyone is happy 

Some groups have come out strongly against the announced changes, with Liz O’Neill, director of umbrella group GM Freeze, which campaigns to raise the profile of concerns about the impact of genetic modification, saying that proper regulation is vital.

“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.”

The group has also raised doubts about just how much the environment secretary “learnt from the exercise” of the consultation. 

“The consultation submissions that GM Freeze has seen raised a wide range of concerns about DEFRA’s proposals for dismantling GM safeguards”, said O’Neill, “but this announcement suggests the minister isn’t listening”.

DEFRA says it will keep on working with industry, business, experts, NGOs and the public to continue building the evidence base around gene editing and “to develop our approach for appropriate governance”.

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