The government has announced rule changes to make it easier to research and develop “gene-edited” food crops that could help make food more nutritious or reduce the need for harmful chemical pesticides.
The alteration in regulations means that gene editing of plants could also help breed crops that are resistant to pests and disease and could potentially boost yields for farmers.
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, healthier crops and livestock.
It could see the development of crops such as sugar beet that are resistant to viruses that hit yields without the use of pesticides.
This comes despite a number of concerns raised during the government consultation. Of the individual responses, 87 per cent said that the risk of gene editing was greater than for traditional breeding and it should continue to be regulated as genetically modified (GM) organisms.
However responses by academic institutes and public bodies reflected a view there was no greater risk.
The rule changes will allow field trials of gene edited crops without having to go through a licensing process that takes a couple of months and costs researchers £5,000 to £10,000, although scientists will still have to inform the Environment Department (Defra) of their work.
The move is the first stage of an approach that could see gene edited foods sold on UK supermarket shelves in the future.
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 Environment Secretary George Eustice said could be changed now the UK has left the bloc.
Mr Eustice said: “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.”
Following the rule change on field trials, the next step planned is primary legislation to change the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude gene edited crops or livestock that could have been created - more slowly - by traditional breeding methods.
That would allow commercial marketing of gene edited products without requiring GM regulation, although they would still be subject to other rules about selling foods.
The government is also planning a broader review of GM regulation in the longer term.
It said foods will only be permitted to be marketed if it is judged they do not present a risk to health, do not mislead consumers and do not have lower nutritional value than non-genetically modified counterparts.
It could take several years for gene edited products to arrive on supermarket shelves, and decisions would have to be made about how they would be labelled.
Prof Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, said: “There are significant benefits to changing the way we regulate genetic technologies, to make sure the system is as up to date as possible and properly takes into account new technologies and scientific discoveries.
“We support giving consumers choice and recognise the potential benefits that gene edited plants and animals may bring to the food system.”
Any gene edited products traded with the EU would have to undergo full GM approval - although the bloc is also looking at its approach to gene editing - but could be sold in countries where gene editing is permitted.
Additional reporting by PA
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