England launches plan to ease crop gene editing regulation post-Brexit

Nigel Hunt
·3-min read
Winter wheat ready for harvest is seen in a field near Kimpton

By Nigel Hunt

LONDON (Reuters) -England's farming and environment minister George Eustice said on Thursday he was launching a public consultation on gene editing in agriculture, with the prospect the technology will the regulated less stringently than genetic modification.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that mutagenesis-based gene-editing methods such as a tool called CRISPR/Cas9, which can rearrange targeted bits of DNA, fall under rules that now apply to genetic modification via strands of DNA from a different species.

Britain opposed the verdict, which was widely condemned by biotech and chemical industry associations, as well as academic scientists, but drew praise from some environmental and consumer rights groups.

"As an EU member we obviously had no choice but to slavishly adopt and accept the judgments of the ECJ, however irrational and flawed they might be," Eustice told the Oxford Farming Conference.

"Now we have left the EU we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence and it starts today with a new consultation on proposed changes to English law that will enable gene editing to take place, so we can achieve a simpler, scientifically credible regulatory framework to govern important new technologies," Eustice said.

Britain completed its departure from the European Union's orbit on Dec. 31, when a transition period that had kept it aligned with the bloc's single market and customs union ended.

DEBATE GOES ON

Proponents of gene editing argue the method can be seen as equivalent to conventional breeding but many times faster.

The consultation was welcomed by the National Farmers Union.

"New precision-breeding techniques such as gene editing have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net-zero ambition," NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said.

Some scientists also expressed support for the move.

"Genome editing is already used in medicine and has immense potential for tackling major agricultural challenges related to food security, climate change, and sustainability," Denis Murphy, Head of the Genomics & Computational Biology Research Group at the University of South Wales, said.

"The original ban on genome editing by the European Court of Justice in 2018 caused widespread dismay and was out of line with mainstream scientific opinion, both in Europe and the rest of the world."

But Liz O'Neill, director of environmental group GM Freeze, said the government was pushing the high-tech, quick-fix agenda favoured by industrial farming corporations.

"Unfortunately this consultation has started very badly. It’s been launched in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis; it has a clear bias in favour of removing vital safeguards," she said.

Agriculture is devolved within the United Kingdom, so Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can set their own rules.

Fergus Ewing, cabinet secretary for Rural Economy in Scotland, noted the European Commission was in the process of reviewing the ECJ's decision.

"It does seem to me somewhat premature to proceed with a consultation when the EU is reviewing this matter and the outcome of that process will be known very shortly," he said.

Lesley Griffiths, minister for environment, energy and rural affairs, Wales, said there was still a lot of concern about the technology in Wales.

"My main concern would be around health and safety...Here in Wales we take a very different approach (than England)," she said.

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Alex Richardson)