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NPA welcomes consultation on allowing the use of gene editing in England

7th Jan 2021 / By Alistair Driver

The NPA has welcomed the launch of a new Government consultation proposing a change to the laws in England to allow gene editing research to be used in plant and livestock breeding. 

gene editing 4The technology is already in use in some parts of the world. But at the moment, following a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification, meaning it it has not been possible to get approval for it in the UK or EU.

The consultation, launched today, proposes changing these rules in England to stop 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.

Speaking at the virtual Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, Mr Eustice said the technology presents 'huge opportunities' in animal and plant breeding. It has the potential to 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, he said.

Research has shown, for example, how gene editing technology can help to breed pigs that are resistant to damaging diseases such as PRRS and African swine fever. 

George EusticeMr Eustice said the Government would 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.

Mr 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.”

Gene editing is a technique that  making specific changes to the DNA of a cell or organism. An enzyme cuts the DNA at a specific sequence, and when this is repaired by the cell, a change or ‘edit’ is made to the sequence. By editing the genome, the characteristics of a cell or an organism can be changed.

Mr Eustice explained how technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited much more quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process. 

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, Mr Eustice said.

He said consulting with academia, environmental groups, the food and farming sectors and the public was the beginning of this process which, depending on the outcome, will require primary legislation scrutinised and approved by Parliament.

The consultation, which will run for ten weeks from today, can be viewed HERE

NPA reaction 

The NPA welcomed the consultation, stressing that the technology can deliver long-term benefits for pig production.  

"We welcome a review of a technology that could be so integral to the future of the British pig herd," NPA senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale said.

In the NPA's response to the Nuffield Council of Bioethics’ call for evidence on genome editing in September 2019, Rebecca highlighted the potential value of the tool in improving the efficiency of pig production.

The NPA response said: "The opportunities for application are long. We might be in a better place to tackle diseases such as ASF and PRRS and we might be able to reduce emissions in pig production or exploit nutritional availability in feed better.”

The response highlighted the need for changes in the approach to regulating and developing the technology.  

“A few countries have made small steps to utilising this technology, but these have been limited. Our industry cannot be disadvantaged by a lack of access to such a tool and any future policy must be clear not to breach ethical boundaries, but to have flexibility to allow the use of the technology to be exploited to its full potential. Any future developments are reliant on support for the research required to explore the opportunities available,” Rebecca added.

She called for leadership to 'properly communicate the value of this technology through the supply chain to the consumer, and also to manage expectations'.

She pointed out that efforts to develop the use of GM crops from the late-1990s was marred by poor communications, which has put European producers at a disadvantage. “There is an opportunity to get the communications right with gene editing, so there is clear understanding of the safety and value from all stakeholders,” she added.

Scientific backing

The consultation was welcomed Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

He said: “The UK prides itself in 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.”

Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, also welcome the Defra consultation, which he said would help with a broader assessment of gene editing as an appropriate technology in agriculture.

He said: “The overwhelming view in public sector scientists is that the Nobel Prize winning methods for gene editing can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture."

Aside from gene editing, the consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating our approach to genetic modification by gathering information on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them.

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