The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act will only apply in England as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments are yet to permit the commercial use of gene editing.
Gene editing in England was under the same tight regulation that restricted the commercial development of GM crops under EU law. Brexit enabled the Westminster government to relax the rules for newer technology.
The UK’s agri-supply trade association, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), welcomes this decision, holding that the legislation could significantly benefit the environment, producers, the supply chain, and consumers.
“Precision breeding is an opportunity afforded to the UK’s EU exit to unlock agri-food innovation, and AIC has worked closely with the Government to ensure it is workable in practice,” Robert Sheasby, AIC chief executive, commented.
The chief scientific advisor for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Prof Gideon Henderson, says the new rules will lead to better food production and bring jobs and investment to England.
The Precision Breeding Act allows only genetic changes that could have been produced naturally or through traditional crossbreeding programs already in use today, and not the introduction of genes from other species.
In so doing, gene editing enables researchers to make precise genetic changes to a plant’s DNA faster than is possible by crossbreeding different varieties.
The new law allows using gene editing and other methods that may arise in the future, provided the result is a crop that is no different from a variety that could be naturally produced.
These resultant crops could withstand the effects of climate change and have increased resistance to disease and pests. This technology could also help with producing more home-grown protein for animal feed, cutting the UK’s dependence on imports.
“While precision breeding is by no means the sole answer to the challenges of climate change and straining food systems, the potential that could be achieved in a variety of agricultural sectors cannot be overlooked,” Sheasby commented.
Bone of contention
While scientists and various scientific bodies support this new Act, critics hold that the change could bring ”disaster” to food production and the environment.
For example, Pat Thomas of Beyond GM raised concerns that gene-edited crops will not have to go through the extensive testing required of GM foods in the EU, which may result in the introduction of toxins and allergens into the food chain.
“The entire process of this bill has been of the government consulting scientists with vested interests, reassuring the government that this change in the law will have no consequences,” she lamented. “History has shown that when you remove regulatory control, particularly for food and the environment, there is looming disaster on the horizon.”
However, according to Defra, the Food Standards Agency will only authorize products for sale if they are proven to present no risk to health.
Another concern revolves around the labeling of gene-edited food, which is not a requirement and could lead to the introduction of GM crops to other parts of the UK, where it is still banned.
However, marketing food produced using precision breeding techniques in England in Scotland, and Wales is legal under the UK Internal Market Act.
While the European Union is currently debating its legislation on precision breeding, the UK could be a world leader in legislating the use of this technology.
“Precision Breeding technologies are the future of food production not just at home but around the world, and this Act will put us at the forefront of this revolution,” Mark Spencer, Food and Farming Minister commented.