Brexit: Chance for England to produce food via gene editing

18-01-2021 | |
Photo: Joris Telders
Photo: Joris Telders

Using gene editing to produce crops and livestock in England could get the thumbs up depending on the outcome of a consultation just launched by Defra.

Defra Secretary George Eustice launched the consultation at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference recognising that the technology 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.

Although the practice is banned in the European Union, Brexit has offered up this opportunity for England to make its own decisions on the method.

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.

Defra Minister George Eustice. Photo: Chris McCullough

Defra Minister George Eustice. Photo: Chris McCullough


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 vital 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.

Improving African dairy cows with precision crossbreeding
Acceligen, a Recombinetics Inc. company, received a grant to deploy a suite of traits into commercially important dairy animals with high genetic merit for production and durability.


But 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 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 around the world, including Japan, Australia and Argentina.

The government 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.

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

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.

Photo: Joris Telders

Photo: Joris Telders


“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.

Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific advisor, welcomed the consultation and said: “The UK prides itself on having the very highest standards of food safety, and there are strict controls on GM crops, seeds and food which the FSA will continue to apply moving forward.

“As with all novel foods, GE foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods. We will continue to put the consumer first and be transparent and open in our decision-making. Any possible change would be based on an appropriate risk assessment that looks at the best available science.”

The consultation will run for ten weeks from Thursday, 7 January to Wednesday, 17 March at 23:59.

Chris Mccullough Freelance multi-media journalist