Government clears the field for trials of gene-edited crops

Gene-edited foods such as tomatoes that help lower blood pressure could be on supermarket shelves within two years as regulations on research are loosened, the Government will announce on Wednesday.

It will cut red tape on field trials for gene-edited crops, which previously required them to apply for a licence in a lengthy and costly process.

Gene editing is tightly regulated in the same way as genetic modification under EU law that was transposed into the UK after Brexit. But the Government believes that GE, which involves splicing a gene and extracting or inserting new DNA, is safer because it does not involve inputting material from a different species.

Nearly 90 per cent of respondents to the consultation rejected the relaxation of regulation on GE crop trials but the Government pointed to responses from scientists and the public sector which broadly agreed there was no extra risk to the environment or human health.

Kale has been modified to taste sweeter in the US

The Government sees the relaxation of rules around trials as a statement of intent toward new legislation that will make it easier for GE products to be sold in England, potentially within a couple of years.

That could include products developed overseas, such as tomatoes grown in Japan with high levels of an amino acid that is believed to help lower blood pressure.

In the US, companies have developed a leafy green similar to kale that has been modified to be less bitter and more like lettuce, cherries without stones, and blackberries without thorns and seeds.

Dr Penny Hundleby, a senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, which conducts GE research, said the relaxation of regulation was a “cautious step in the right direction”.

“However, it falls short in allowing this technology to be used to improve crops for the benefit of the environment and consumers,” she said. 

Making it easier to develop and manufacture GE products could be a boost to British industry, as well as opening up new markets in what is predicted to be a £7 billion industry by 2026.

But it could close off the European market to English manufacturers, although the EU is now following the UK’s lead in reviewing rules around GE crops.

The UK is home to several world-leading gene editing research facilities which until now have not been able to develop and manufacture their products without going abroad.

UK scientists ‘punching above their weight’ 

“The UK’s research in this area really punches above its weight,” said Johnathan Napier, the science director of the Rothamsted centre in Hertfordshire. “The tricky thing is translating that to a product that has societal benefit.”

The Rothamsted centre recently started a field trial of wheat that has been gene edited to remove the amino acid linked to carcinogens when bread is toasted.

Other trials include sugar beet that is more resistant to viruses which would boost farmers’ profits and could reduce reliance on chemical pesticides.

Green groups are split on the need to relax rules around GE crops and livestock and the potential harm to the environment. Trials of gene editing in livestock can already take place without a licence in England, but would also require new legislation to make them easier to sell in supermarkets.

Further consultations will also decide what level of labelling and traceability will be required for GE products.

Joanna Lewis, Soil Association Director of Policy and Strategy, warned of a “high-tech free-for-all”. 

“Sweeping away regulations around genetic engineering could spell disaster for sustainable farming in the UK,” she said.

“Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place.”

Rules around gene editing are a devolved issue and Scotland has indicated it may not relax restrictions.

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