GENE EDITED crops will only benefit the corporations that own them, not the UK farmers that grow them.

That is the warning from organic farming watchdog the Soil Association this week, in a broadside against the UK Government's move to loosen the regulations around biotechnology.

Read more: Greenlight given for gene editing exploration

“Sweeping away regulations around genetic engineering could spell disaster for sustainable farming in the UK," declared Soil Association director of policy and strategy Joanna Lewis, who pointed out the issue that the UK Government had so far ignored in its deliberations – gene edited organisms could be patented and therefore owned and entirely controlled by the companies and corporations behind them.

"What is to stop profit-driven interests overpowering the hopes that the government have for the technology?" asked Ms Lewis. "How do we avoid farmers losing even more control of their crops seeds? How do we prevent crops being designed to sell more pesticides, not less?"

The deregulation of biotechnology has been widely touted as a Brexit benefit for the UK, now it is no longer under the EU regulations that largely kept biotech out of the food chain. Defra minister George Eustice has flagged up plans to review the regulatory definition of 'genetically modified' to exclude gene-edited organisms. In a nutshell, the argument is that gene-editing within a species' genome is just a faster way of achieving what selective breeding already does, and does not deserve the same suspicion as is afforded to genetic 'modification', which has been known to move DNA between species.

The prize, as supporters of gene editing see it, will be the quicker development of crops with better resistance to pests, diseases and environmental extremes – just the ticket as climate change starts to bite and conditions in the UK's arable fields become less predictable.

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

However, while recognising the problem of climate change, Ms Lewis at the Soil Association was emphatic that 'a high-tech free for all won’t help': “Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place, including a lack of crop diversity, the decline in beneficial insects, and animal overcrowding. We must increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.

“When it comes to any genetic engineering, the government need to say how they will ensure its fair use, and how unintended consequences will not negatively affect the environment or animals," she said. “The Soil Association is calling for a commitment to better, not weaker, regulation on genetic research and more support for farmers to adopt agroecological methods that support nature, as called for in the National Food Strategy."

A spokesperson for consumer group Keep Scotland The Brand warned that the introduction of gene-editing to the Scottish food chain would be a 'huge nail in the coffin' for sales to the EU.

"It is the very divergence in standards leading to a loss of the European market which many have been warning about for years," said Ruth Watson.

"It is very bad news for Scotland's reputation as producers of high quality food and drink if Scottish farmers are tainted by association. It is crucial we keep our high standards and #keepScotlandtheBrand."

Rare Breeds Survival Trust chief executive Christopher Price was also unconvinced of the benefits: “Rather than looking to gene editing livestock in laboratories to enable an increasingly intensive future for UK farming, Government should instead be facilitating the use of our native livestock breeds in extensive systems.

"Most of the problems that gene editing seeks to address have resulted from intensive farming systems in the first place, keeping native breeds outdoors in extensive systems means those concerns should not arise," said Mr Price.

“Bred to thrive in our landscape, when native breeds are kept in the right place and at the right density we can achieve sustainable food production that goes hand in hand with the environment and high welfare.

“The idea of changing the regulatory definition of a genetically modified organism to exclude organisms produced by gene editing ‘if they could have been developed by traditional breeding’ is nonsense," he added. "Meddling with animal genetics in a lab for quick results is just not comparable with the natural process of conventional breeding over many generations.”

However, English NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw was more positive about Defra's moves to mobilise gene editing against the problems of the day: “The world’s climate emergency points to the urgency of applying this technology to farming and this announcement is an important first step towards a properly functioning legislative system.

“We know gene editing is not a silver bullet. But if we are to make this a success, any new government regulation must be robust, fit for purpose and based on sound science. This will in turn provide public confidence, enable diverse and accessible innovation, and allow investment in products for the UK market.

“British farming is innovative and ambitious and by seeking to use more sophisticated and targeted breeding tools for our crops and livestock, we can continue to produce sustainable, climate-friendly food well into the future.”