PERMISSION for gene editing in agriculture is back on the political agenda, following the launch of a Defra consultation on a potential change in UK law to allow the technology into the food chain.

Under current European law, Gene Editing is lumped together with Genetic Modification, and as such is excluded from use in producing novel crop plants and livestock.

Defra is touting the GE consultation as an early consequence of its post-Brexit independence from EU law, potentially giving UK farmers a tech edge over their continental counterparts.

However, the European Commission itself is already re-examining the legislative status of GE, with a report due this April, so Defra's decision to revisit the same question is perhaps best regarded as a parallel exercise.

Biotech developers have long been aggrieved that the 'editing' of genes within a species has been tarred with the same controversy as the 'modification' of genetic code. In short, GE achieves nothing that could not be achieved through normal breeding within a species' own genetic resources, but does so much more quickly, and in principle, more accurately.

Genetic modification, by contrast, involves taking genes from entirely different species and splicing them into animals and plants to produce effects that wouldn't occur in nature. While this has proved acceptable to the public in the production of medicines – for example in the use of GM sheep that express bulk quantities of useful human hormones in their milk – gaudy displays of interference in nature, like the wheat variety augmented with jellyfish genes so that it glows in the dark when under stress, making it easier to target chemical treatments, have fomented fierce opposition from consumers.

The distinction between these two processes – and the possibility that GE might be freed from the stigma associated with GM – is what is now up for discussion, both in the UK and Europe.

Secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, George Eustice, said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

Mr Eustice suggested that through gene editing, crops could be developed that require fewer chemical inputs, or which produce greater nutrition. Animal genes could also be edited to breed livestock resistant to key diseases, reducing the need for antibiotics.

Defra chief scientist Prof Gideon Henderson added: “The motivation for this is not lowering animal welfare standards – it’s about the benefits.”

Responses to Defra's move have varied across a fairly predictable spectrum of organisations, but NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick welcomed the possibility of 'an open-minded approach to the possibilities presented by these world-leading technologies'.

“Defra has followed up on its 2020 commitment and issued a consultation on the issue in England today. As an area of devolved regulatory competence, we are calling for similar engagement from the Scottish Government to examine, properly and thoroughly, the case for developing and using precision breeding techniques within Scotland," said Mr McCornick.

“We firmly believe that precision breeding techniques have potential to improve sustainability, respond to the climate emergency and reduce the use of pesticides. This technology would allow us to grow crops which are more resilient to increased pest and disease pressure brought about by our changing climate and more extreme weather events. It would also allow us to use new breeding techniques to breed more productive, efficient animals that need less inputs to protect their welfare. This is crucial in enabling our farmers to become truly sustainable," he said.

“With Scottish Government awaiting the outcome of a European Commission study into the regulatory status of gene editing techniques, expected in April 2021, it is unlikely that the Scottish industry will see progress on this issue ahead of the Scottish Parliamentary election in May – however, the Scottish Government signalling open-mindedness to the science in correspondence with stakeholders last year is welcomed by the industry," added Mr McCornick.

“We must be mindful that what has been released by Defra is an England only consultation. Any significant divergence in approach to gene editing would have implications for the UK Internal Market and, therefore, the effectiveness or otherwise of Common Frameworks and/or the UK Internal Market Bill.”

Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Ben Macpherson commented: “Scotland’s policy on the cultivation of GM crops has not changed – we will be maintaining Scotland’s GM free crop status, in line with our commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards, and have made our views known to UK Ministers.

“The UK Government’s decision to consult on making changes to the definition, which would differ to Scotland’s approach, is an example of why we believe the UK Internal Market Act removes our competency to make decisions on the marketing of products in a devolved area. While any definition change outlined in their consultation would not in legal terms extend to Scotland, the UK Internal Market Act would force Scotland to accept the marketing, sale and free circulation of products in Scotland, which do not meet the standards set out in the Scottish regulations.”

Compassion in World Farming's chief policy adviser, Peter Stevenson, suggested that the history of breeding livestock 'for profitable traits' offered no assurances that gene editing would not be harmful to animals' welfare. Aside from the problems associated with fast growth and increased production, he warned that breeding animals resistant to diseases might simply encourage farmers to stock them more intensively: “This is pushing us down the industrial farming route. It is entrenching an antiquated system of farming that we would do better to abandon.”

The Soil Association's head of farming, Gareth Morgan, was also sceptical: “We question the speed with which the government is using Brexit to pursue a deregulatory agenda in this area. It is vital that citizens and farmers who do not wish to eat or grow gene-edited crops or animals are offered adequate protection.”

The British Society of Plant Breeders welcomed the Defra consultation, saying that GE technology could mark a 'step change' in prospects for crop improvement to support more sustainable, productive and climate resilient agriculture.

“Using advanced gene editing techniques, which mimic those that occur naturally, can improve the speed and precision of crop breeding, opening up significant opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change,” said BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke.

“We support decisive Government action on this issue, in line with the Prime Minister’s post-Brexit pledge to liberate our biosciences sector. The proposals set out in the consultation will benefit plant breeders large and small, in both public and private sectors, and will open up exciting new opportunities for crop improvement across a wide range of species and characteristics.”

The Agricultural Industries Confederation also responded positively. Chief executive Robert Sheasby said: “We have long sought to support sustainable modern commercial agriculture in the UK and this is the opportunity for our members to put forward their views on this development in technology. We would encourage the industry at large to respond and we will certainly ensure that the voice of the agri-supply industry is heard, as we collectively help to shape the future of agriculture policy.”