Peers are preparing plans to legalise the gene-editing of crops in England, a move that scientists say would offer the nation a chance to develop and grow hardier, more nutritious varieties. The legislation would also open the door to gene-editing of animals.
The change will be proposed when the current Agriculture Bill reaches its committee stages in the House of Lords next month, and is supported by a wide number of peers who believe such a move is long overdue. At present, the practice is highly restricted by EU regulations.
The plan would involve introducing an amendment to the bill to give the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs the power to make changes to the Environmental Protection Act, alterations that would no longer restrict gene-editing in England. The rest of the UK would need separate legislation.
Gene-editing of plants and animals is controlled by the same strict European laws that govern genetically modified (GM) organisms. However, scientists say gene-editing is cheaper, faster, simpler, safer and more precise than GM technology.
As they point out, GM technology involves the transfer of entire genes or groups of genes from one species to another while the more recently developed techniques of gene-editing merely involve making slight changes to existing genes in a plant or animal and are considered to be just as safe as traditional plant breeding techniques.
Early benefits for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those that we have now, said plant scientist Professor David Baulcombe of Cambridge University.
This enthusiasm is also shared by peers who have argued that the wide use of gene editing of crops could give the nation a key advantage in agriculture and in the food industry after Brexit.
Peers have argued gene editing could give the nation a key advantage after Brexit
I would like [to send] a clear message in this bill that we will move forward to allow gene editing in our research programmes, said Lord Cameron during last weeks reading of the bill. This is a way of speeding up the natural methods of farm breeding to ensure that we can improve the environmental and nutritional outcomes of feeding our ever-expanding human population.
And there was clear evidence that the government would also be sympathetic to such a move. On gene editing, the government agrees that the EU approach is unscientific, said Lord Gardiner, who was responding for the government.
By freeing gene-editing from the expensive restrictions imposed by the EU on the growing of GM plants it will also be possible for small and medium-sized enterprises to set up new projects, say supporters.
At present only major corporations can pay the costs of the rigorous trials required when growing GM plants. We are looking for a brighter, greener, more innovative future, and this bill helps farmers produce that, said Conservative peer Lord Dobbs last week.
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