In the hopes of becoming a frontrunner in biotechnology following Brexit, the UK has announced new legislation cutting what it deems as “unnecessary” red tape to encourage gene-editing research.
The rule changes, announced by the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on Thursday (20 January), will make it easier for scientists across England to undertake plant-based research and development using genetic technologies such as genome editing.
The European Commission is currently reviewing the EU’s rules on technology after the publication of a recent study on new genomic techniques, which concluded that the EU’s current legal framework on GMOs is insufficient.
“Simplified gene-editing rules make it easier for researchers to develop more nutritious and resilient crops, which require fewer pesticides,” a government statement reads, adding it hopes this will help UK farmers to grow “more resistant, nutritious and productive crops.”
According to the statement, the new legislation is also intended to advance the UK’s ambition to become a “global science superpower by 2030”.
“Outside the EU, the UK is able to cut red tape and set better rules and regulations that work in the best interests of British farmers and scientists,” it contends, adding that the legislation is the first step towards adopting a “more scientific and proportionate approach” to the regulation of genetic technologies in hopes of unlocking further innovation.
The statement stresses that the new rules do not mean that environmental or research standards will be lowered, reiterating that all scientists researching with genetic technologies will have to continue to notify DEFRA of any research trials.
Moreover, the UK will, for the moment, continue to classify gene-edited plants as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), per the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling.
This means that commercial cultivation of these plants, and any food products derived from them, will still fall within the existing rules.
Minister for agri-innovation and climate adaptation, Jo Churchill, said that new genetic technologies “could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age,” including food security, climate change, and biodiversity loss.
Chief scientific adviser, Gideon Henderson, welcomed the fact that the new rules would allow scientists to assess new crops in real-world conditions more easily.
“This will increase our ability to harness the potential of gene editing,” he said.
While Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, which specialises in plant and microbial science, described the move from the UK government as a step in the right direction, he called for more ambition.
“To make the most of these discoveries, we need to translate our science to benefits for consumers by making products available on supermarket shelves,” he said, hoping for a further loosening of the rules.
However, not all welcome this new direction.
Claire Robinson, the editor of campaign group GMWatch, said that the government is still “hell-bent” on removing protections for health and the environment to allow the GMO industry free rein in England.
She pointed out that this is despite the results of DEFRA’s own public consultation, in which 85% of respondents said they opposed deregulation.
“It’s hard to see how research can be made any easier, as field trials with gene-edited and older style transgenic GM crops are already ongoing in England, and the process for getting them approved seems to be little more than a rubber-stamping exercise,” she added.
Criticising the case study examples selected by the government to showcase the potential of gene editing, including virus-resistant sugar beet and disease-resistant tomatoes, she pointed out that many are not needed because non-GM solutions to the problems being targeted already exist, while others run “complex risks”.
“[The Westminster government] should be demanding more independent testing of these products, not trying to roll back the protections already in place,” she criticised.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/ Alice Taylor]