In an environmental audit meeting on Thursday (18 June), UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice offered his support for gene editing after Brexit, saying that the UK government disagrees with the EU stance on the matter.
Addressing MPs via video call, Eustice said that “gene editing is an area that we ought to be considering if we want to reduce our reliance to pesticides,” highlighting that improved genetic resistance will be important for pest and disease challenges.
He stated that the UK government thinks “gene editing techniques like CRISPR are really a more targeted form of conventional plant breeding, allowing to move or modify a particular gene within a certain species,” adding that he considered some of these techniques as “an extension of conventional plant breeding,”
However, he was careful to specify the distinction between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and gene-editing technologies, saying that he would not look to change the regulatory framework on GMOs.
He added that he wasn’t sure that it was “appropriate” to regulate GMOs and gene-edited organisms the same way, diverging from the EU’s stance on the issue.
The remarks came in response to a letter sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on science and technology in agriculture to Eustice earlier this month urging the government to introduce an amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords, the UK’s upper house, in order to boost genetic innovation after Brexit.
The proposed amendment would provide new powers for ministers to consult on and make alterations to the UK Environmental Protection Act.
This could then give Britain’s scientists, farmers, plant breeders and animal breeders access to new gene-editing technologies.
Questioned whether he was expecting an acceleration in response and thinking on gene-editing from the UK government after transition period, Eustice responded that there are a “number of different areas where I think the EU approach isn’t right and this is one”.
He emphasised that the UK government disagreed with the judgement of the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling which concluded that gene-edited organisms fall, in principle, under the GMO directive, saying that the UK worked to try to block the decision.
In particular, he criticised the decision for being based on a “legal technicality” rather than a “scientific decision,” saying that in this area there is a need for scientific based decision framework.
Discussions surrounding the adoption of the technology are heating up as the UK considers the future of its agricultural sector post-Brexit.
Last week, several members of the Lords were vocal in support for the technology during the second reading of the new UK agriculture bill.
“On gene editing, the government agrees that the EU approach is unscientific,” said Lord Gardiner on behalf of the government.
He added that the UK government is “committed to adopting a more scientific approach to regulation in the future,” but stressed that this new approach would not be adopted without proper consultation.
Baroness Redfern added that she hopes the new Agricultural Bill will give “scientists, farmers, plant breeders and animal breeders the same access to new gene editing technologies as the rest of the world.”
The UK National Farmers Union has also backed calls for the new Agriculture Bill to allow British farmers access to gene-editing technology post-Brexit.
However, the technology remains a contentious issue, and support for the adoption of gene editing in the new bill is by no means unanimous.
During the debate, Baroness Parminter stressed that she will “oppose any attempt to use the Bill to overturn existing legislation on gene editing,” adding that this would be would be a “serious step backwards for animal welfare and public trust in our food.”
“We need to retain the European model of regulation that we are currently signed up to, where no gene editing is allowed outside the lab and mandatory labelling is required, and we should not enable trade deals with countries such as America, where products from genetically modified animals can be marketed,” she added.
In a statement published this week, Wayne Copp, executive director of A Greener World UK, an organisation which promotes sustainable farming practices, called the amendment a “retrograde step”.
He warned that it “represents a further complication if we are to salvage any trading relationship with the EU where organisms produced using gene editing techniques are classified as GMOs.”
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]