Genetically modified food a step closer in England as laws relaxed

After changes in farming regulations, the UK will soon be able to allow field trials of gene-edited crops. This means that genetically modified foods could be grown and sold in the UK.
Field trials by companies or research organizations will require that they notify the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, existing red tape and costs will be eliminated so more trials can take place.

Although the immediate changes are small and only affect England, the government claims that they will follow up with plans for new primary legislation, which will allow much greater gene editing in crops in the UK and redefine the law on genetic modification.

This could allow for the sale of gene-edited plants that were developed in field trials. It also opens the door to other steps like gene editing in animals and possibly the production and sale genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the UK.

George Eustice (the environment secretary) stated that gene editing can harness the genetic resources provided by nature. It could be a tool that can help us tackle the most difficult issues we face regarding food security, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

Ministers want to use Brexit to allow gene modification, which is a form genetic modification that is severely restricted in the EU to be used in the UK. This despite the fact that 87% of those who responded to a public poll considered gene-edited crops to pose a greater risk than traditional methods of crop breeding.

Gene editing is the process of using and altering genes that are already present in an organism. This is unlike other forms genetic modification which may use genes from other animals or plants. Gene editing can mimic traditional plant breeding, but it's much faster than requiring years of selective breeding.

Gene editing, according to proponents, could be safely used to create crops with higher yields or more nutritional benefits or that are resistant to disease, drought, high temperatures, and other climate effects.

The changes were welcomed by scientists. Rothamsted Research's director and chief executive Angela Karp said that gene editing gave them a powerful tool to speed up the creation of new varieties of plants that are more nutritious, more resistant against climate change, and have a lower environmental impact.

We are excited to continue to build on our gene editing science to deliver the crops farmers need to meet their Cop26 emission targets. Now we will be able scale up our field studies and speed up the creation of new varieties to future-proof our farming.

Earth First's anti-GM crop protestor demonstrated in July 2000 near Daviot (Aberdeenshire), at the only approved site for testing the crops. England will relax its GM crop rules. Photograph: Ben Curtis/PA

Guy Poppy, University of Southampton professor of ecology, welcomed the development. However, he said: Although I understand why Defra propose a proportionate, step-by-step process I fear that the journey along that path will be slow and complex, fraught with ongoing claims and counterclaims.

Campaigners claimed that the government was ignoring public concern about the issue. Liz ONeill, director at umbrella group GM Freeze said that genetic engineering, whatever it is called, must be properly regulated. The government is attempting to replace the safety net of public protections with a hi-tech "free-for-all". However, our food, farms and natural environment are better than this.

She said that the announcement was made in response to the Defras consultation regarding regulation of genetic technology. At the time of writing, however, there is no information available about what George Eustice learned from the exercise. Although there were many concerns raised by the consultation submissions about GM Freeze, this announcement shows that the minister isn't listening.

Joanna Lewis, director of policy, strategy and public affairs at the Soil Association, stated that gene editing is a bad approach and that the government should focus on helping farmers become more resilient.

She suggested that it would be beneficial to reverse the trend of low investment in agroecological, natural-friendly methods and farmer-led technologies. We need to invest in solutions that address the root causes of pests and disease, such as a decrease in crop diversity and overcrowding. To solve climate and natural crisis, we must increase soil carbon, wildlife, and animal welfare on farms, as well as protect our health.

Gideon Henderson is the chief scientific advisor at Defra. He said that the government was closely studying the implications of any changes to UK law regarding GM organisms in order to make future trade agreements. Some countries and the EU impose strict restrictions.

Even if GM organisms were not included in trade agreements, there are concerns about the potential for cross-contamination and possible contamination of other agricultural goods.