In one of its first post-Brexit moves, England has launched a consultation on gene editing in a bid to unlock “substantial benefits” for the sector and the environment, but the move could put the country at odds with the EU on the matter.
The consultation, confirmed by the UK Environment Secretary George Eustice at the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday (7 January), will focus on preventing gene-editing (GE) organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetically modified (GM) crops, according to a statement released by the UK government.
This could result in a significant divergence from the EU position on the matter and would see the country align itself instead with others such as Japan, Australia and Argentina, who have all adopted a similar approach to GE crops.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled back in 2018 that gene-edited organisms, in principle, fall under the scope of the EU GMO Directive. While this was lauded by environmental groups, the ruling has come under fire from the agrifood industry.
Depending on the outcome of the first part of the consultation process, the department of environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) may look to alter current legislation to amend the definition of a genetically modified organism (GMO) as it applies in England.
“This would mean that this legislation does not apply to organisms produced by gene editing (GE) and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed using traditional breeding methods,” the DEFRA consultation page reads.
EU ruling ‘flawed and stifling to scientific progress’
“Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age,” Eustice said, calling the 2018 ECJ ruling “flawed and stifling to scientific progress.”
The UK is now “free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence,” he said, adding that this begins with the consultation.
Responding to the news, UK National Farmers Union (NFU) vice president Tom Bradshaw said that new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have the “potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net-zero ambition”.
“We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future,” he added.
David Baulcombe, professor of botany in the department of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, added that the consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the UK’s approach to genetic modification by gathering information on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them.
“We want our regulations to be in step with the current science and the knowledge we have learned from 30 years of existing regulation,” he stressed.
However, Patrick Holden, CEO of the UK Sustainable Food Trust, warned that gene editing will further narrow gene pools and intensify food and farming systems.
While gene editing, like other technologies, could be used “for good or ill”, Holden cautioned that “gene editing is likely to be deployed in such a way that it will further accelerate the devastating narrowing of the gene pool which has been a feature of postwar farming, not only in the UK but throughout the world.”
This potential divergence from the EU on the matter has also raised concerns over the future of the UK-EU agrifood trading relationship.
Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of farmers association COPA-COGECA, previously warned that such a move would be “prohibitive in trading relations” and that he was afraid that there would be “no way to settle this” without a level playing field on both sides of the Channel.
Likewise, the verdict is out as to whether consumers have an appetite for GE food.
Speaking at a recent press conference, James Bailey, executive director for the supermarket Waitrose, warned that consumers tend to be averse to gene editing, highlighting that customers want to know “where their food comes from and how it is produced”.
“If our customers don’t buy the food, there is no point,” he said.
Martin Häusling, agriculture spokesman for the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, previously told EURACTIV that “consumer studies have demonstrated again and again that consumers do not want GM-food and feed”.
“The UK will, therefore, lose a big market for its gene-manipulated products,” he said, stressing that European products have “a very good international reputation, partly because they are free of genetic engineering”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]