NEW PLANS to ‘unlock the power’ of gene editing by ‘cutting red tape’ and making research and development easier, have been outlined by the UK Government this week.

As part of its response to the gene-editing consultation carried out earlier this year, the UK Government said that new technologies could help the natural environment by enabling UK farmers to grow more nutritious and resilient crops, which need fewer chemicals to protect them.

Scientists have welcomed the move as the first step towards reducing ‘unnecessary and unscientific’ regulatory barriers to the use of advanced breeding techniques.

Environment Secretary George Eustice announced that their focus would be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

Read more: Greenlight given for gene editing exploration

“It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change, and biodiversity loss,” he said.

“Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change. We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place.”

Defra chief scientific advisor Gideon Henderson added that gene editing technologies provide a more precise way of introducing targeted genetic changes, making the same types of changes to plants and animals that occur more slowly naturally or through traditional breeding.

“These tools enable us to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years,” he explained.

“There are exciting opportunities to improve the environment, and we can also produce new varieties that are healthier to eat, and more resistant to climate change.”

Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials. The planned changes will ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing, to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism. The government is still to consider the safest and most responsible way to introduce gene edited products into the marketplace.

Read more: Will Scotland be stuck at the breeding technology traffic lights?

The Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof Robin May, said that the current rules around gene editing could benefit from an update: “There are significant benefits to changing the way we regulate genetic technologies, to make sure the system is as up to date as possible and properly takes into account new technologies and scientific discoveries.

“We support giving consumers choice and recognise the potential benefits that GE plants and animals may bring to the food system,” he continued. “We are working closely with Defra and a range of other partners to ensure that potential changes to the regulation of genetic technologies will maintain the high food standards that UK consumers currently enjoy.”

Head of Division of Functional Genetics and Development at the Roslin Institute and R(D)SVS, Professor Helen Sang OBE, concluded: “Gene editing offers major opportunities to address the combined challenges of rapidly increasing global demand for healthy and nutritious food with the goal of net zero carbon emissions.

“I welcome this announcement as a first step towards reducing unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers to the use of advanced breeding techniques which are precise and targeted, allowing us to make specific genetic changes.”