Ministers plan to ease regulations on the study of gene-grown crops in England by the end of 2021 as part of a post-Brexit plan to liberalize rules covering the manipulation of genes in agriculture.
Environment Secretary George Eustice on Wednesday announced the move, which will pave the way for commercial production of crop-created crops, a form of genetic engineering that does not involve the introduction of DNA from other species.
It follows a consultation on the deviation from EU rules, which treat gene editing in the same way as other genetic modifications and impose strict usage restrictions. However, in April, the EU announced its own consultation on gene editing.
“Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided,” Eustice said. ‘It’s a tool we can help. . . to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. ”
The government plans to facilitate the regulations on crop research by the end of the year by using a statutory instrument. This would remove a lengthy and expensive licensing process, but would require researchers to notify the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of each field trial.
This will be followed by primary legislation to adapt the definition of genetic modification to exclude no-till, a process which, according to the government, ‘creates new varieties similar to those that can be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes’.
Ministers will also review England’s approach to genetically modified organisms in the wider “longer term”.
The changes come despite a campaign against gene editing by environmental groups, which claims to be treated the same as genetic modification and poses unknown risks.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, a campaign group that includes Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, said: ‘Genetic engineering – whatever you choose to call it – needs to be properly regulated.
“The UK government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protection for high-tech free for all, but our food, our farms and the natural environment deserve better.”
She added: ‘The consultation proposals that GM Freeze has seen raise a wide range of concerns about Defra’s proposals for dismantling GM precautions, but this announcement indicates that the minister is not listening.
Officials hope the changes will pave the way for new solutions to pests and diseases, such as virus yellow, that attack sugar beet and has worsened in the UK since a ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids. These attack lice spread the disease but also pose a risk to bees.
But GM Freeze said many gene-modified crops are “designed to tolerate repeated spraying with a specific herbicide”, and this could increase the use of pesticides. They are also “patented so that farmers are not in control”, the group said.
The response of individual people to the consultation was dominated by the campaign against changing the rules, with 87 per cent of the individuals claiming that the risks outweigh the benefits. However, a majority of the academic and public sector groups were in favor of the change, they said.
Crops that are on sexual care will still be subject to rules such as the regulation of the introduction of ‘new foods’ that require prior approval. Ministers also hope to liberalize rules for gene editing of livestock, although the initial change applicable to field trials will not affect animals, which are undergoing experiments in laboratories.