NEW UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his first speech in the job to say he would ditch the EU’s opposition to genetically modified crops, and so reignited the war of words between pro and anti-biotechnology campaigners.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said: “Let’s liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-GM rules. Let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

This has rallied pro-GM groups that blame the EU’s precautionary approach to GM approvals for constraining the technology’s development. Last year, several science bodies rallied against the EU's decision to include the more recent technology of gene-editing under the same rules that govern GM use.

James Hutton Institute chief executive, Professor Colin Campbell, reacted to Mr Johnson's speech, saying: “GM and gene editing do indeed have great potential to develop crops with biological resistance to pathogens including blight in potatoes which is the third most important staple crop in the world.

"Any new crops need to go through proper risk assessments and take account of what is socially acceptable in different parts of the world and to reflect local conditions and local market sensitivities," he stressed.

"The James Hutton Institute is pioneering new ways of conventional breeding and uses GM and gene editing to help understand how to do this better. We have also done many of the ecological risk assessments of GM crops."

Prof Campbell continued: "We are interested in a wide range of crop traits including those that might be seen as public-good traits such as reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers, pesticides and GHG emissions. New vertical indoor growing systems that allow us to grow multiple generations all year round will allow us to potentially halve the 10 to 15-years conventional breeding takes to produce a new variety.

"The deployment of GM and gene editing also needs to help address the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity we see around the world. Biological resistance would reduce the reliance on chemicals and potentially reduce the environmental risks often associated with synthetic biocides.”

Director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research, Professor Achim Dobermann, welcomed the prospect of a more pragmatic approach to the risk assessment of genetically engineered crops: “As the world faces the challenge of feeding more and more people from less land and with the least harm to the planet – in the face of climate change and all its associated challenges – we need every possible tool and technology at our disposal to improve our crops, and to make them more nutritious and more resilient.

“What we need in the UK is a more straight-forward process for the regulation of genetically engineered crops, that meets the highest standards in terms of safety, as well as productivity, nutritional value and environmental impact. This can be done in a much smarter way than previously, for example on a trait by trait basis, rather than a blanket ruling across all gene technologies.

“There is also a requirement for better legislation on the specific technique of genome editing that, firstly distinguishes it from other GM technologies, and is differentiated in terms of where it is being applied – whether its crops, microbes, animals or human medicine. Sound ethical decisions and societal consent also play central roles in framing discussions about both GE and GM and how they deliver benefit to the wider public.

“I think if this happens, the whole UK science community would welcome an opportunity to support the new government in this.”

However, organic farming body the Soil Association were quick to dispute the PM's opinions.

Their head of food and health policy, Rob Percival, said the PM’s pledge was GM bluster and a distraction.

He said: “The government’s priority should be supporting a shift to more environmentally friendly farming practices and putting farmers in the driving seat of sustainable innovation.

“This will help tackle the climate and wildlife emergencies we are facing, instead of looking to risky technologies and chemicals as a sticking plaster for the symptoms of those crises.”