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NPA reaction to Defra gene editing announcement

29th Sep 2021 / By Alistair Driver

Defra Secretary George Eustice has announced new plans to ‘unlock the power of gene editing’ - however, the focus will initially be on crops, rather than livestock. 

gene editing 4Defra’s response to a consultation published earlier this year on paving the way for the use of the technology in England sets out how it plans to ‘pave the way to enable use of gene editing technologies, which can help better protect the environment’.

But while gene editing can be applied to livestock - pigs have already been bred experimentally to be resistant to PRRS using the technology - Defra stressed that the focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

Any changes allowing the technology to be used in livestock will follow later, after Defra has given more consideration to the ethical concerns raised in the consultation. 

Scientists will continue to be required to notify Defra of any research trials, but the planned changes will ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing, to align them with plants developed using traditional breeding methods.

The next step will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed by traditional breeding. 

Defra stressed there will be no weakening of the UK’s ‘strong food safety standards’.

Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Industry reaction

The NPA’s response to the gene editing consultation earlier this year highlighted the benefits the technology could bring for farm animal health and welfare. 

Responding to today's announcement, NPA senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale said: “We’re very pleased that the Government is taking genetic technology policy forward because technologies such as gene editing are vital for the future of the pig industry - they could benefit not only our pig herd, but the environment and the British public also.

“The initial focus for government is plant research, which is a great first step, but we hope that Government can also look to develop the legislative foundation to drive the innovation and allow it to be applicable in the field. 

“We also hope that, once established, the scope can be broadened to explore the opportunities in livestock.”