DEFRA is to loosen the reins on gene edited crops and food in England, signalling the start of a major move away from the phytosanitary standards that the UK currently shares with the European Union.

Under the new legislation promised by the UK Government, scientists across England will be able to undertake plant-based research and development using genetic technologies such as gene editing, potentially creating new varieties that can then be commercialised for use by English farmers.

Defra described the move as the first step towards adopting 'a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies', and stressed that gene editing would be used to create new crop strains similar to those which could have been produced through traditional breeding processes – just a lot quicker.

The distinction between gene editing and genetic modification remains blurry in the public's perception, and an effort is now underway to lift gene editing out of the 'unnatural' bucket to which genetic modification was consigned back in the days when biotech companies were adding jellyfish genes to crops to make them glow in the dark when stressed. The key difference is that gene editing happens strictly within the crop species' own genome – there is no sourcing of DNA from other plants, animals, or indeed jellyfish.

To make this point, Defra highlighted a number of examples where gene editing could potentially accelerate existing crop breeding work by isolating and emphasising desirable traits from within that crop's own DNA.

  • Increasing sugar beet's resistance to Virus yellows would reduce the need for pesticides, help to protect the environment, increase food production and reduce costs to farmers. Prof. Mark Stevens, Head of Science at the British Beet Research Organisations said: "Virus yellows is currently a difficult breeding target because it is a complex of three viruses, so any methods to identify and accelerate the development of commercially viable virus resistant varieties would be widely welcomed by the UK sugar beet industry."
  • Editing wheat's DNA so that it would produce less asparagine, which can be a source of probable-cancer causing compounds when exposed to high heat. Asparagine reduction is the aim of the first gene edited wheat trial in Europe, already underway at Rothamsted Research, where Prof. Nigel Halford said: "The use of gene editing could help reduce the risk of acrylamide formation when wheat products are baked and toasted. This has potential benefits for public health and the manufacturing of food products."
  • Developing wheat that is resilient to climate change would help to increase food production from a crop that 2.5 billion people globally are dependent on. Researchers at the John Innes Centre have used gene editing techniques to help identify and explain the key wheat gene, ZIP4, which is responsible for maintaining 50% of yield. This discovery presents an opportunity to breed high-yield wheat varieties using a novel mutation of the gene, while also allowing the introduction of critically important traits such as resilience to rising temperatures and disease resistance. Professor Graham Moore, of the John Innes Centre, said: "Our research priority is now to identify variations of the ZIP4 gene which maintain fertility under different temperature regimes. We aim to identify variants of the gene with effects that give wheat yield resilience to climate change."
  • Boosting mildew resistance in tomatoes, thus removing one of the main reasons why UK tomato growers spray fungicides on their crops. Researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory have already produced a new resistant variant called Tomelo using gene editing – and claim to have done so in less than 10 months. Professor Nick Talbot FRS, Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, said: "Genome editing provides the opportunity to achieve the outcomes of plant breeding – which has been so successful in controlling diseases and improving yields – but in a much more precise manner. In this way, we can aim to produce nutritious crops requiring much lower agrochemical inputs and with greater resilience.

UK Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation Jo Churchill said: "New genetic technologies could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.

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"All scientists undertaking research with genetic technologies will have to continue to notify Defra of any research trials," stressed Ms Churchill. "For now, gene edited plants will still be classified as genetically modified organisms and commercial cultivation of these plants, and any food products derived from them, will still need to be authorised in accordance with existing rules. The government will never compromise high safety, environmental and welfare standards, and the new rules do not mean that environmental or research standards will be lowered."

British Society of Plant Breeders chief executive Samantha Brooke welcomed the announcement: “New legislation laid before Parliament will simplify requirements for our members to undertake plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies such as gene editing, more easily.

“This is an important next step towards anticipated regulatory divergence from the EU rules that classified all gene edited plants as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even when the variety could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding methods,” said Ms Brooke, who noted that the rules inherited from the EU differ from how gene editing techniques are regulated in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and Japan. “Today’s announcement is a small but important step towards more proportionate and enabling regulation, in line with the Government’s pledge to liberate our biosciences sector."

However, a Scottish Government spokesperson made it clear that it would prefer to follow Europe's lead on the issue: “Scotland’s policy on GMOs has not changed. We remain opposed to the use of GM in farming, to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry.

"We are aware of current debate around novel genomic techniques and how these relate to existing GM legislation, and we note in particular the ongoing consideration of this at EU level," said the spokesperson. "The Scottish Government’s policy is to stay aligned with the EU, where practicable, and we are closely monitoring the EU’s position on this issue.” In recent reports, the European Commission has acknowledged the potential of gene editing – and noted that it has become a hot topic of research outwith the European Union. EU commissioner for health and food safety, Stella Kyriakides, is on the record saying: “New genomic techniques can promote the sustainability of agricultural production, in line with the objectives of our farm to fork strategy."