We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues.
New legislation to speed up the development and marketing of “gene edited” crops will be introduced by the Government in a new Bill later today (Wednesday, 25 May 2022).
Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animal much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding which has been used for centuries to create stronger and healthier crops and livestock.
The UK Government said gene editing could help improve food security, producing crops that are more nutritious, climate resilient or grow with less need for pesticides and fertilisers that damage wildlife, and livestock that is resistant to disease or needs fewer antibiotics.
But the Soil Association’s policy director Jo Lewis said: “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.
“Instead of trying to change the DNA of highly stressed animals and monoculture crops to make them temporarily immune to disease, we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place.”
She said agroecological farming and a shift to healthy and sustainable diets was the most evidence-based solution for climate, nature and health.
Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and GM, in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.
But following an EU ruling in 2018, it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms, a situation which the Government is now unpicking as the UK has left the bloc.
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will create a new category for gene edited organisms to regulate them separately from genetically modified (GM) organisms.
It will introduce new notification systems for research and marketing, and ensure information collected on precision-bred organisms is published on a public register.
The new legislation aims to speed up the development and commercialisation of crops and livestock bred with genetic editing, although the government says it is taking a step-by-step approach by creating rules for plants first.
It could pave the way for rolling out tomato plants that are mildew-resistant to cut fungicide use or are fortified with vitamin D, developing wheat that can cope with higher temperatures, and breeding chickens that are resistant to bird flu.
No changes will be made to the regulation of animals under the GM regime until measures are developed to safeguard animal welfare, the Environment Department (Defra) said.
It will also allow the import of GE foods from other countries, if they meet the same regulations.
The rule changes apply to England, so GE foods can be developed and produced by English scientists and farmers, but could also be sold in Scotland and Wales.
The government has already allowed field trials in England of gene edited crops without having to go through a licensing process costing researchers £5,000 to £10,000, although scientists have to inform Defra of their tests.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Outside the EU we are free to follow the science. The UK has some incredible academic centres of excellence and they are poised to lead the way.”
Dr Penny Hundleby, senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, said: “Gene editing and genome sequencing are great UK strengths and through the new Genetic Technology Bill they will move us into an exciting era of affordable, intelligent and precision-based plant breeding.”
Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.