Tue. Oct 19th, 2021

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The author, a former head of the No. 10 policy unit, is a senior Harvard contributor.

A tomato is just for sale in Japan, which would have made me scramble ten years ago, but now makes me smile at the wonder of human ingenuity. The Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato is the first food in the world whose genes have been modified using CRISPR-Cas 9 technology — in this case to provide more of the GABA amino acid that apparently lowers blood pressure. It is already cultivated by thousands of Japanese gardeners, who probably guess that decades of traditional selective breeding techniques could not achieve this result so accurately.

Eight years ago, scientists from the Sainsbury’s Laboratory in England were one of the first in the world to use CRISPR-Cas 9 to gene-edit plants (albeit for a different purpose). If I worked there, I might be wondering quietly if it’s worth it to stay longer in the UK. Despite the government’s fanfare this week over the relaxation of some rules on research, there is still no way for scientists in the UK to market their discoveries in the UK and thus improve the food we eat. .

Japan is not a cowboy nation. The regulators tread carefully and insist on clear labeling. But with this tomato, they have just jumped ahead in a global race. I have no idea if the Sicilian Rouge could be a substitute for statins. But I find it difficult to object to its existence, as we are already fortifying bread and cereals with folic acid, water with fluoride and milk with vitamin D. And I can not help hoping that the same techniques will eventually be used around the deadly allergen of peanuts and sesame seeds, which makes every takeaway, school lunch and restaurant meal anxiously polished.

Gene editing was supposed to be a post-Brexit dividend, a way to help Britain lead the world in the life sciences, through the strict EU ban on gene editing, which has a specific place in the genome adaptation, and free genetic modification. , which introduces foreign DNA. The government believes it has taken a big step by making it easier to plant uncultivated crops. But it has not embraced genetic modification, and there is no time schedule to make future decisions on how to market these products safely and responsibly. As one researcher puts it: “what’s the point of conducting field trials, which are basically product development if you can not get commercial approval?”

This summer I was standing between two fields in the English countryside. Behind me was the world’s oldest agricultural experiment, in which researchers had been studying soil quality since 1843. In front were neat rows of camelina plants, adapted to express the Omega-3 oils commonly found in fish. Its creator, Professor Johnathan Napier, its creator, explained that it can provide us with the Omega-3 that we humans need to eat regularly without endangering the fish of the ocean.

It seems common sense to grow something on land that is otherwise harvested from the oceans, and which is widely acknowledged to be a public benefit. But Napier and his colleagues at the Rothamsted Research Center can go no further unless they can develop this genetically modified plant as a commercial crop and see how it works in practice. After more than a decade, the non-profit Rothamsted has now signed an agreement with a US company to develop the camelina as a commercial crop in the US and Canada, as there is no prospect of being able to do so in the UK. do not.

It’s the same old story – of British scientists pioneering brilliant techniques, often with a strong desire to do good, only to see other countries reap the benefits, jobs and profits. Ministers are acting cautiously, aware that some organic farmers are concerned about cross-pollination and that some consumers distrust GM foods. But the debate continues, and the government runs the risk of being left behind.

The public is also outdated. Despite the EU ban, many of our meat, milk and eggs already come from animals fed GM crops. In 2016, the Royal Society found that two-thirds of all protein-based animal feed in the EU comes from soy, of which about 70 percent is imported. More than 90 percent of it is made from GM soybeans. This is a long-term, unintended experiment that did not pose any serious threat to human health that I am aware of.

Japan, Argentina and Brazil license a case for genetically modified products on a case-by-case basis. America regulates some genetically modified crops in a similar way to commercial crops. Like it or not, we are on our way to a world where more and more such products will become available. The question is whether the UK wants to be part of this emerging world industry, or whether we want to cut out of it.

The Secretary of Environmental Affairs, George Eustice, has strongly argued that no-till crops can make crops more resilient to pests and climate change and produce more nutritious food. He should regulate products according to their safety, not according to the underlying technique. The government has hinted that it will ‘reconsider’ the use of GM, not just GE, in the long run, which usually means ‘never’.

When the Japanese tomato is unveiled, Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Sainsbury Laboratory sends out a terrifying tweet. “It really upsets me,” he wrote. “We were one of the first to develop the technology in plants, so much potential, so many opportunities.” Unless the UK moves much faster, we will see our inventions commercialized elsewhere and taken back to us. Whether you fancy a gene-edited tomato, our lunch is already being eaten by other nations.

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