CURRENT EU policy prohibiting the gene editing of crops would be an 'early candidate' for the UK to ditch as it writes its own post-Brexit rulebook, Defra minister George Eustice has said.

Provoking a furious response from organic farming bodies, Mr Eustice said that UK agriculture needed to accept an 'accelerated form of genetic breeding' if it was to reduce its reliance on chemical pesticides and tackle its agronomic challenges.

Last month, a group of scientists and industry leaders wrote to Defra Secretary Michael Gove to demand clarity on how the UK Government's 'Chequers' Brexit plan would affect gene editing research.

The letter, signed by the English NFU, the CLA and TFA, as well as a number of professors, was sent following a ruling by the European Court of Justice which declared that the technology of gene editing (GE) should be governed by the same regulations as genetic modification (GM). In particular, the signatories were concerned that the 'common rule book' proposed in the Chequers agreement would oblige the UK to follow the EU’s laws on GE and GM.

In his response on behalf of Defra, Mr Eustice said: “We disagree with the judgement the ECJ has come up with. We think gene editing and cisgenesis is largely an extension of conventional breeding techniques, the likes of which we have had for decades.

“I think this would be an early candidate for us to depart from the approach the EU is taking," he said. "If we are serious about trying to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides and tackling some of these agronomic challenges, we do need to embrace an accelerated form of genetic breeding.

“In terms of the common rule book, it will not apply to that," insisted Mr Eustice. "It is already the case that GM foods are widely sold in the EU, particularly in animal feed, where they predominate, even though the EU does not allow the cultivation of crops.

“As a decision, it is very much a national one, not affected by the common rule book.”

Speaking from the Soil Association, its head of farming policy, Emma Hockridge, said: “The Soil Association absolutely rejects the suggestion by Farming Minister George Eustice that gene-editing is needed if we are to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides and that the recent ECJ ruling should be ignored.

“Scientific research has long shown that these new gene editing technologies give rise to similar uncertainties and risks as GM always has, and we would urge the government to ensure the UK stays aligned with this ruling based on scientific evidence, including the study published by leading journal Nature that shows that the technique ‘causes many profound mutations and DNA damage’."

Ms Hockridge added that despite decades of claims that traditional GM plant breeding was a safe way to feed the world, the evidence on the ground had often shown GM crops to have been a 'disaster'.

“We have always been clear that these new plant breeding techniques are GMOs and therefore are banned in organic farming and food," she stated. "This position is shared within the organic sector at the European (IFOAM EU) and international level (IFOAM Organics International), and by many scientists.

“The outcome of gene-editing is to manipulate and alter the genome in a laboratory to make a new organism. This is the very definition of genetic engineering, and gene-editing risks introducing similar uncertainties and unintended consequences as genetic modification of DNA.

“The Soil Association will continue to encourage the cultivation of open pollination seeds, which can help farmers adapt to a changing climate by breeding drought and pest tolerant plants. Breeding crops in this way has proven to be lower-cost, faster and more effective than GM, particularly when informed by new technologies like Marker Assisted Selection, based on our new knowledge of the genome.”