The UK Government is moving forward with plans to allow gene editing for crops and animals, as part of its mission to drive up agricultural productivity.
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is aimed at promoting more efficient farming in the country, and will focus on things like boosting resistance in crops so as to reduce the use of pesticides.
Its mention in the Queen’s speech – delivered by Prince Charles at the opening of parliament this week – has confirmed the Government’s commitment to both the bill and putting distance between the UK and EU post-Brexit. Current laws which restrict gene editing are inherited from the bloc.
One of main promises of the bill will be the establishment of two notification systems, through which farmers, breeders and scientists will need to notify the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of precision-bred organisms.
Gene editing is considered by scientists to be less risky than total genetic modification. This is because the practice does not involve the introduction of new DNA to a species.
Instead, the process makes changes to traits already within a plant or animal. It is a much faster practice than selective breeding, which has been used for thousands of years by farmers to develop stronger crops and livestock.
However, gene editing is still a controversial topic and the Government’s insistence that animals be included in the bill has led to criticism from animal welfare groups.
World Animal Protection has said the legislation posed “potential for catastrophic welfare implications” and has urged the Government to consider the plight of farm animals, especially given the fact the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act has only recently passed.
Commenting on the bill, the group’s Farming Campaign Manager Lindsay Duncan said: “The welfare of animals has already taken a backseat to profitability through selective breeding, the unknowns and motivations to gene edit sentient animals should be enough to not legalise this technology.”
Meanwhile the campaign group GM Freeze, which advocates for abolishing all genetic modification practices, took issue with the fact the Government is ignoring public feeling on the bill.
“Defra’s own consultation demonstrated overwhelming public rejection of Government plans and widespread concern about the idea of regulating on the basis of what ‘could have been’ rather than what has actually been done to a genetically manipulated organism,” said GM Freeze Director Liz O’Neill.
“As they will only apply to England, they also risk fuelling friction between the nations of the UK and undermining trust with our most important trading partners.”
As O’Neill points out, while the bill states information collected on precision-bred organisms will be published on a public register, consumers will lack the ability to find out specific information about food products. “People want to know what they are buying and eating,” she said.
However, news of the bill’s progress has been welcomed by other groups, who say the move is a positive one for the UK’s agriculture sector, which has been buckling under pressures like fertiliser price increases and labour shortages.
Crop science organisation NIAB welcomed the commitment to the bill, saying the legislation was a science-backed step.
NIAB Chief Executive Professor Mario Caccamo said: “[The bill] sends a clear signal that Britain is adopting a more pro-innovation approach outside the EU, bringing our rules into line with other countries such as Japan, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, and opening up much greater potential for inward investment and international research collaboration given the UK’s strengths in genetic science.
“Innovation in plant breeding will be the single most important factor in helping global food supplies keep pace with a growing world population, in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources of land, water, energy and biodiversity.”
Along the same lines, longstanding scientific organisation The Royal Society’s Vice-President and Biological Secretary Professor Dame Linda Partridge added: “Genetic technologies, including genome editing, can help address the environmental and societal challenges faced by 21st century agriculture.”