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Agri food tech

Gene editing act passed into law in England

young woman with glasses smiling
5 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
UK Prime Minister talking with colleagues in cabinet meeting, all sat on long green table

Image credit: Number 10

The Government has passed the gene editing act into law in England, allowing farmers to use precision breeding technologies which can adapt the genetic code of plants and animals.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act intends to boost production of disease and drought resilient crops, reduce the need for fertilisers and pesticides, and breed animals that are resistant to harmful illnesses.

The Government says the new law will help England boost its food security as it faces growing pressures like climate change, as well as supply chain challenges.

Precision breeding technologies such as gene editing can be used to give plants beneficial traits, a process which would take longer using traditional breeding methods, according to the Government.

The Government claims that precision-bred methods differ to genetic modification, which create crops with genetic changes that could not have appeared naturally or through traditional breeding. However detractors point out that this type of genetic editing also does not happen naturally.

The introduction of the Act moves England away from stricter rules it used to follow when it was part of the European Union. The EU’s laws view gene-editing and genetic modification as the same, which makes it harder to get gene-edited foods to market.

Commenting on the announcement, Food Minister Mark Spencer said in a statement: “Some 40% of crops globally are lost every year to floods, pests and other external events, and this new law will unlock our agri-biotech industry to support resilient food production for decades to come.”

Chief Scientific Adviser for Defra, Gideon Henderson also commented on the news: “This is an important time for agricultural science. The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes.”

Last year, scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich successfully used gene editing technology to increase levels of Vitamin D in tomatoes, and these could be one of the first gene edited crops to become available if ongoing field trials are a success.

With sunshine levels being particularly low in England, such crops would help to manage the high level vitamin D deficiency in the country. As Professor Cathie Martin explained in an interview with Food Matters Live: “There is a clear and urgent public health need for an economic, plant-based, sustainable source of vitamin D3,” with the deficiency costing the UK around £100 million every year to treat.

However before any changes can be made to food on the market, the Food Standards Agency must consult on new food and feed legislation and develop new proportionate risk assessment for precision bred food and feed products.

While the Government says the Act will place England “at the forefront of this revolution”, and help it guarantee greater food security, the law has received much criticism from campaigners and consumers alike.

Last year, the bill was considered “not fit for purpose” by the Regulatory Policy Committee, saying the Government had failed to consider the “full range of potential impacts arising from the creation of a new category” of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They also noted that with the law being valid in England, transportation of goods between other countries in the UK would be made more difficult.

Last year, the non-profit organisation Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) heavily critiqued the bill, stating such technology would “mask the adverse health effects of intensive farming methods”, by being used to grow animals faster to achieve higher yields, which will deeply impact their welfare. In September 2022, CIWF released a report detailing the negative effects of selective breeding on broiler chickens, laying hens, dairy cows, turkeys, farmed fish and pigs.

Mark Spencer said that the Genetic Technology Act “is fantastic news for British consumers and farmers”, however, the results of a YouGov poll conducted in November 2022 show there is low consumer confidence in gene edited foods. Some 43% were not convinced gene edited goods would provide any health benefits, and 46% were unsure whether the technology would protect the environment.

According to Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM, the act will benefit the the biotech industry more than the average consumer or farmer. She told Food Matters Live: “It removes meaningful regulatory control – including safety assessments, consumer labelling and monitoring – from a staggering range of genetically modified plants and animals in our food system and the wider environment. It allows biotech developers to self-certify that their engineered organisms are safe and beneficial and imposes no penalties if that turns out to be untrue.

“I think it’s absolutely right to question the motives and the consequences of any piece of legislation that allows a large and well-funded industry to fly so far below the regulatory radar.”

Thomas also said the Government could be giving people false hope, adding: “This PBO [precision bred organisms] is a special Brexit GMO that, we are told, will transport the United Kingdom to the sunny uplands of global tech dominance while at the same time fixing our food system and wider environmental problems.

“The catch is that gene editing technology, which has been around for more than a decade, consistently over-promises and under-delivers and that makes it an economic, food system and environmental failure. We should be focusing on solutions that work.”

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