Plans to consult on gene editing – which could unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food – have been set out today (January 7), by Environment Secretary George Eustice in his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference.
The way that plants and animals grow is controlled by the information in their genes.
For centuries, farmers and growers have carefully chosen to breed stronger, healthier individual animals or plants so that the next generation has these beneficial traits - but this is a slow process.
Technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited much more quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process, helping to target plant and animal breeding to help the UK reach its climate and biodiversity goals in a safe and sustainable way.
Gene editing is different to genetic modification where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one. Gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from different species, and instead only produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods.
At the moment, due to a legal ruling from the European Court of Justice in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification.
The consultation announced today will focus on stopping certain gene editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding.
This approach has already been adopted by a wide range of countries across the world, including Japan, Australia and Argentina.
The government has said that it will continue to work with farming and environmental groups to develop the right rules and ensure robust controls are in place to maintain the highest food safety standards while supporting the production of healthier food.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference today, Environment Secretary George Eustice said:
"Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age.
"This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.
Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress.
"Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation."
Consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public is the beginning of this process which, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinised and approved by Parliament.