Editing the future

23rd September 2021

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Catherine Early

Post-Brexit, the UK has the freedom to change its regulation of gene editing technology – and debate around the pros and cons of such a move is under way. Catherine Early reports

Seven days into the UK’s departure from the EU, the government announced that it would hold a consultation on plans to move away from EU regulation on gene editing. Speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference, Environment Secretary George Eustice called the EU’s approach “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,” he went on.

Gene editing is an alternative to genetic modification (GM). While GM involves inserting whole genes into crops, gene editing allows DNA to be added, deleted or altered. The most efficient, flexible and cheapest approach – known as CRISPR/Cas – is adapted from a genome-editing system that occurs naturally in bacteria.

Only very small amounts of DNA are involved – sometimes a single unit of the genetic code – and the change is precisely targeted. Proponents of gene editing claim that it merely produces the same changes that could be made using traditional breeding methods, but much faster. They also point to its potential benefits, which include improved yield, nutritional composition, shelf life, tolerance to cold and drought, and resistance to disease, insects and herbicides. In its consultation, Defra states that these attributes could reduce costs for farmers – as well as chemical use, which would reduce farming’s impact on the environment.

A new approach

Up until 31 December 2020, the UK had to follow the EU approach, which regulates gene editing in the same way as GM. This approach was confirmed by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018. Countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Japan, on the other hand, have taken the position that certain gene edited organisms should not be regulated in the same way as those that are genetically modified. Defra believes that the scientific approach would be to judge the safety of an organism on its characteristics, rather than on how it was produced.

Speaking at a Green Alliance webinar earlier this year, Defra’s chief scientific adviser, professor Gideon Henderson, said that the benefits of gene edited products were “really substantial”. He pointed out that some products are already in existence, including a variety of tomatoes in Japan that contains higher levels of a blood pressure-lowering compound.

“We now have the opportunity outside the EU to look again at the legal decision that we thought at the time was incorrect, and consider the use of those benefits that we can get from gene editing approaches,” he added.

Defra has received almost 6,500 responses to the consultation. Trade body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is broadly supportive of regulation that would allow gene editing, which it says could provide benefits to UK biotech industries while ensuring that the UK adheres to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. However, FDF chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell warns that the government will need to consider the impact on EU trade if it goes ahead with divergence from the bloc’s regulations.

The National Farmers’ Union believes the UK should be able to trade with the EU as long as robust risk management controls are in place to safeguard health and the environment. It points out that the EU imports GM protein feed from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Canada, despite their different approaches to gene editing, and is hopeful that the EU’s stance could change by the time gene edited foods are commercialised in the UK (which is many years away). The European Commission has already reviewed the impact of the 2018 ruling to analyse the link between biotechnology and the EU’s Green Deal Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to make food systems more healthy and environmentally friendly.

Its study on genomic techniques (bit.ly/EC_StudyGenomic), published in April, concluded that there were “strong indications that the applicable legislation is not fit for purpose for some new genomic techniques and their products”. It added that the legislation needed to be adapted to scientific and technological progress.

A follow-up study will consider what form any adaptation should take, and what policies should accompany it. The European Food Safety Authority is also producing scientific opinions on advances on biotechnology to assess risks (bit.ly/EFSA_Biotech).

“Adapting crops to climate change and reducing carbon input are the challenges most companies are working on”

Regulation difficulties

The James Hutton Institute, one of the Scottish government’s main research organisations in environmental, crop and food science, also supports a legislation change on gene editing. It already uses both GM and gene editing in its research, which focuses on finding new ways to breed plants.

Research leader Robbie Waugh says that if the government gives the green light to gene editing, researchers would look at how the technology could be used commercially – for example, to create varieties of crops that are adapted to a lack of water, which would help us adapt to increasingly dry spring seasons.

“Adapting crops to climate change and reducing carbon input are the challenges most companies are working on,” he says. “It wouldn’t necessarily be about increasing yield – more about stabilising yield under adverse conditions.”

However, he believes that regulating gene editing would be difficult. “You can’t tell the difference between a natural mutation and a genome edit. Legislators would have the responsibility of saying that something had been gene edited, but they wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Organic certification organisation the Soil Association is concerned about the impact of genetically engineered crops being grown near organic crops. Organic standards worldwide mostly do not allow gene editing or GM, according to Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning, also speaking at the webinar.

“That becomes hugely problematic, because you’ve got to be able to ensure you have traceability, that you can label, that you can stop cross-contamination or assign liability if it happens. I’m not sure how you would ever do that under Defra’s proposals. These things need to be taken into account if you don’t want to completely jeopardise the progress that’s been made in organic farming in the past 50 years,” she said.

Working with nature

Critics are also sceptical of the government’s focus on the technological solution of gene editing, arguing that it is diverting vital investment and attention from farmer-driven action and research for agro-ecology, which could yield results more quickly.

The Soil Association argues that 10% of the government’s agricultural research and development budget should be spent on farmer-led research – up from the current 1%. “It is a disservice to farmers to ignore these opportunities and prioritise an unproven, risky technology instead,” says Louise Payton, policy officer at the Soil Association.

Waugh is supportive of natural solutions, but notes that gene editing could achieve outcomes that natural variation could not – for example, separating two genes that are very close together. However, Martin Lines, an arable farmer from Cambridgeshire and chair of the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, believes that, while there could be benefits to gene editing in some circumstances, the focus should be on working with nature.

“Breeding techniques have narrowed the gene pool,” he says. “We used to have over 100 varieties of carrot, but now we only see two or three – and the same is true of cereals and other crops.” This has created issues with diseases, because the parentage of the new variety still contains the old varieties, he explains. “We need to expand the gene pool we use, and it needs to be seen as a national asset, not a corporate asset,” he says.

Public agricultural research bodies such as the Plant Breeding Institute – which once provided 90% of wheat and 86% of cereal varieties grown in the UK – were privatised in the 1980s, narrowing research on all plants, Lines continues. “All that expertise, and those pools of genetics, are now held for private benefit, not for the nation.”

While the government does provide a small amount of support for natural solutions, the emphasis is always on science and technology. Lines believes that equal emphasis and funding is needed when it comes to the use of heritage varieties and improving gene pools, and that breeding should start again from the original heritage varieties, with the results monitored.

“Government and scientists are very keen to give us solutions through gene editing, but we don’t know what other problems a new crop will cause once it’s out in nature,” he adds.

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

Image credit | iStock

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