UK plans to use highly controversial "gene editing" to grow "more nutritious and more productive crops"

New plans to unlock the power of gene editing to help farmers grow more resistant, more nutritious and more productive crops have been published as part of the government response to the gene editing consultation, announced by UK Environment Secretary George Eustice.

The response sets out ways to plan to pave the way to enable use of gene editing technologies, which the government claims can help better protect the environment.

Gene editing is a tool that makes plant breeding more precise and efficient so we can breed crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment, helping farmers and reducing impacts on the environment.

Research could lead to sugar beet varieties resistant to viruses that can cause serious yield losses and costs to farmers unless pesticides are used. Such new varieties would help make our farmers more productive and, importantly, also reduce the need for chemical pesticides, protecting bees and other pollinating insects.

Gene editing is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes - but currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.

Leaving the EU allowed the UK to set its own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies. As a first step, the government is to change the rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape and make research and development easier.

The focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change. We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place.

Environment Secretary George Eustice.

Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials. The planned changes will ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing, to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism.

The UK government will consider the appropriate measures needed to enable gene edited products to be brought to market safely and responsibly. In the longer term, this will be followed by a review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly.

Gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than their non-genetically modified counterparts.

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