Both Houses of the UK Parliament have now approved a statute which will make it easier to conduct field trials of plants produced by genetic technologies such as gene editing.

The Statutory Instrument cleared its final hurdle in the House of Lords late this week, having already been approved by a clear majority in the Commons.

National Institute of Agricultural Botany chief executive Professor Mario Caccamo warmly welcomed the new law, and described gene editing as a 'potentially transformative' research tool and plant breeding technique.

“This Statutory Instrument marks a small but important step towards aligning our regulations with other parts of the world – such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and the US – where simple gene edited plants are not regulated as GMOs," said Prof Caccamo.

“Adopting a more science-based and proportionate regulatory approach will help unlock the UK’s global leadership in plant genetics, fostering a research environment that encourages innovation in agriculture to address the most pressing challenges of today – helping farmers grow crops that are more nutritious, more resilient to climate change and less reliant on pesticides or fertilisers.

Read more: Lords hammer gene editing plan

"NIAB has been using gene editing experimentally in a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, rice and strawberries, for several years," he confirmed. "But because of the difficulties and costs of testing these novel crops in the field, we have been unable to progress them beyond laboratory and glasshouse experimentation to evaluation in the field.

"The measures introduced by this Statutory Instrument will make a big difference to prospects for research at NIAB and other research organisations."

Prof Caccamo highlighted six current NIAB research projects which stand to benefit immediately from easier access to field trials, including work on resistance to fungal disease in wheat; flowering time variation in strawberry plants; root architecture traits in durum wheat; enhanced nutrient and water use efficiency traits in wheat; microbial symbiosis in rice; and coeliac-safe wheat.

He added that greater access to gene editing would also boost NIAB’s plans for a genetics and pre-breeding programme in pulse crops such as peas, beans and soya, to help explore their potential as a home-grown protein source.

“The focus for gene editing research at NIAB is to help develop crops and farming systems which are less dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and which reduce the climate change impact of agriculture. "These are all important objectives shared widely across the political spectrum for which new breeding technologies can offer tangible solutions."