IT SEEMS the government in London is set to lift the ban on what is now known as gene editing. Call it genetic engineering, modification or editing – the science is the same.

This is good science with a lot of potential – but it is also controversial, particularly in Europe, where initial bad publicity surrounding it has only got worse with the passage of time.

To go from the idea being floated by the Defra minister, George Eustice, at the online Oxford Farming Conference, to a potential decision is rapid progress for a normally lumbering system. This prompts questions around why the government sees the need for speed. It is a decision that will put massive clear blue water between the UK and EU, where progress with GM is effectively blocked by some very powerful politics.

This is not going to change and if the UK goes in a different direction it will be about delivering evidence that Brexit is an opportunity to be different. To be fair to the government, the UK has always been at odds with the EU approach. It has been supportive of science and was frustrated to see EU voting mechanisms used to block progress, which led to the good of GM being thrown out with the bad.

The government claims gene editing can be a green solution. It cites the development of characteristics for better disease, pest and drought resistance. This focus on positive benefits highlights where GM went wrong in the first place, when the focus was on productivity and yields. There is certainly a green argument, in that better disease resistance reduces the need for chemicals which in turn reduces tractor operations and fuel use. It does tick some impressive green boxes, but critics are not short of ammunition.

While much of the focus is on plant breeding, criticism will be around livestock breeding and animal welfare issues. It is a sure bet that at the Daily Mail their 'Frankenstein Food' headline is being dusted off for a new battle against science.

There are also implications for what might be termed British agriculture. With a few small differences within the CAP, and rural development in particular, agriculture has been a cohesive UK policy for generations. However the decision on gene editing, if it is taken, will only cover England. That prompts questions about what will happen in Scotland, if as seems likely it opts to go down a different road.

The implications are even more difficult in Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU single market and faces all the difficulties that brings to trade with the rest of the UK. The decision also has the potential to skew research priorities within the UK, with England's scientific collaboration likely to be with the rest of the GM world, while Scotland could be focussed on a more European approach.

Ironically Brexit was to be about more freedom in decision making – an escape from policies dominated by France and Germany – but now in agriculture, Scotland is finding UK policies are effectively English policies for English farming.

If this decision is being taken simply to show independence from the EU, it is not a good basis for policy making. It is an approach that might bring the UK closer to the rest of the world, and the US in particular, and further away from Europe. That is an uncertain punt on future trade relations, given that the EU-27 will remain our biggest market for a long time.

It is already a red tape nightmare exporting there, as the Scottish fishing industry knows to its cost. Every step towards the UK and EU having different systems – the move away from current levels of equivalence – only makes that challenge greater. Going down the GM road in Britain is effectively lighting the metaphorical touch paper.

It is clear that the Christmas Eve free trade deal is not creating free trade for the UK. London has now admitted defeat, blaming it on Covid, and has said it will not implement any additional controls on EU food imports before October. That was welcomed by the Irish farming lobby and others as a pragmatic solution to a problem entirely of the UK's making. That gesture was not reciprocated. EU controls on UK exports will remain – the ultimate proof perhaps that we really do need the EU as a supply source more than it needs UK exports.