Boris Johnson delivered his first speech as prime minister on July 24, 2019. He promised to liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules. He said that a move like this would allow the nation to develop crops that will feed the world.
In last week's Queen's speech, Johnson's government outlined how it hopes to achieve this goal. The forthcoming genetic technology bill will be used to do this. The proposed legislation has been welcomed by leading UK biologists, who warned last week that a long battle lies ahead before UK plant and animal science is at a stage to save the world.
The bill will allow us to take a few baby steps, according to Prof Nick Talbot of the Sainsbury Laboratory.
The problems that lie ahead are illustrated by novel products created by UK scientists. The proposed new regulatory framework is unlikely to approve these, as they are stuck in the regulation purgatory that has surrounded them for the past few years.
There are two different genetic technologies that are used to create new crop varieties. Genetic modification is the process of taking an entire gene from one plant and putting it into another.
The host plant acquires protection against a particular disease from the original plant. GM crops were the focus of a campaign that was based on the false claim that they were unsafe and a danger to health.
Gene editing is the second technology. Two of its creators, a French researcher and a US researcher, won the 2020 Nobel prize in chemistry for their work on developing a key gene-editing technique. It allows scientists to change the makeup of a gene. They can create crop strains with new attributes without adding genetic material.
The Queen highlighted this technique in her speech last week. The government seems to be saying there is a problem with GM plants but these nice genes will be exempt and not caught up in tight regulation.
For the past two decades, Jones and his team have worked to create a potato that is resistant to a particular type of disease. It is the same as the MarisPiper, the most commonly grown potato in the UK, except for one key difference. It is resistant to a devastating agricultural disease that costs UK farmers tens of millions of pounds a year.
Farmers have to spray their fields 15 times a year to protect their potatoes.
The problem is that the new bill will not provide a regulatory framework for approving plants that were created this way. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the new bill will create a regulatory regime for plants and animals that have genetic changes that could have arisen through traditional breeding or natural processes. The animals and crops that are raised on UK farms are not derived from GM techniques.
Crop varieties will not be regulated on their properties but on the method used to create them.
The problem is that GM is a more powerful technology. If we want to develop new strains of crops that can tolerate the effects of climate change and also provide us with new sources of nutrition, we need to be aware that GM can do some things that gene editing can't.
He pointed to the work of his team in creating plants that make Omega 3. These vitamins have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, and may also play protective roles in cancer and other conditions. The world's main source of Omega 3 is fish, but as global stocks dwindle, the planet faces a critical shortage.
The omega 3 crops that were created using GM techniques would be a solution but are considered taint because of that. The bill should be seen as the beginning of the process.
The benefits of creating regulations for controlling the release of genetically edited crops and animals were stressed by other scientists. A breed of pigs that is resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a serious ailment that can cause widespread deaths on pig farms, has been created by scientists at the Roslin Institute.
The proposed legislation comes at a good time, as we have been working on creating resistant pigs this way and are now ready to pass it on to breeding companies.
Another issue is raised by Roslin's work. The legislation outlined in the Queen's speech will only apply to England. It is not certain that similar legislation will be passed north of the border because Scotland has devolution of such regulations. It could get messy.
Although an encouraging start has been made, the UK is still a long way from freeing its extraordinary bioscience sector. The need to pursue new plant and animal research and ensure new products get into fields and farms as soon as possible is clear.
The world's population is likely to reach 10 billion by the year 2050 and new disease-resistant strains of crops and farm animals will be needed to feed it. As the world warms up, global heating threatens to destroy crops. Researchers say that crops that can survive are needed.
The director of the John Innes Centre in Norfolk said that agriculture has a major impact on the environment. Fossil fuels, along with pesticides, can also have a damaging effect on local ecology. Science can save us from these problems.