Future regulation of gene editing: NFU responds

Published 29 September 2021

Science and technology
Tom Bradshaw 2021 portraits

The government has announced changes to the rules allowing gene editing field trials. This change comes about as the UK no longer has to follow EU rules that regulated gene editing in the same way as genetic modification (GM).

Gene editing is different from GM as it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes. Currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.

Announcing the change George Eustice Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. 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.”

NFU response

Responding to the government announcement on future regulation of precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “It is very encouraging to see the government’s view that new precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming, the environment and the public, and will be vital in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.

“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.”

Better quality, increased nutritional value and a longer shelf life

“These new tools could help in a number of ways, from addressing pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals and improving animal health and welfare, to increasing farmers’ resilience in the event of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and benefiting the environment through more efficient use of resources. This would mean lower emissions and less waste, allowing British farmers to farm more sustainably and profitably.

“Crucially, precision breeding technologies will also help in the development of foods with direct benefits to the public; better quality, increased nutritional value and products with a longer shelf life.”

Not a silver bullet

Tom Bradshaw continued, “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.

“The NFU will be examining today’s announcement in detail and will work with Defra to ensure the right legislative system is in place, not only to drive research but also to provide a route to market for improved varieties and breeds. We also urge government to provide the necessary researchers and companies with a clear timetable. The government will also need to work closely with the devolved administrations to deliver something which works for the whole of the UK.

“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.”

Sustainable solutions for UK sugar beet

NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly has welcomed the move toward precision breeding and a possible solution to the current struggle with virus yellows disease. Michael said:

“This is an important step towards sustainable solutions to the key issues facing the UK sugar beet sector. I am pleased that government has recognised the potential for gene edited sugar beet varieties to go some way to address the serious yield losses growers face as a result of virus yellows disease. Gene editing technology also has the potential to help provide solutions to fungal diseases such as, Cercospora and pests, such as free-living nematodes which have a direct impact on the viability of growers’ businesses.”

“However, gene editing is not a silver bullet, and this is just the first step towards a properly functioning legislative system which will be developed in the coming years. We require a clear timetable and regulatory certainty to develop the long-term solutions our sector needs.”

Devolved issue

Gene editing is a devolved issue, the changes only apply to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are free to take a different approach. Discussions will be needed between governments before primary legislation is brought forward.

We continue to work with Defra on this important announcement.

More from NFUonline

Read our explainer on what gene editing in agriculture means.

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