Disappointment at Defra's 'unilateral' move on gene editing

After weeks of build-up and hints of major changes to the UK’s regulatory framework on the use of gene editing breeding techniques, Westminster will today reveal that its plans will currently be limited to research and development.

Scottish environment minister, Màiri McAllan
Scottish environment minister, Màiri McAllan

However, the Scottish Government, which has previously stated its reservations on the commercialisation of such technology, expressed disappointed at England’s unilateral move on the issue, stating that it would continue to engage with Defra, Wales, and Northern Ireland to ensure that devolved competences were respected in charting the country’s future direction.

Announcing the plans for England later today, Defra secretary of state, George Eustice, has claimed that such breeding techniques are both precise and efficient – and could speed up the development of crops that will be more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment while helping to benefit farmers and reduce impacts on the environment.

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Speaking ahead of the announcement, Eustice said that the changes, published as part of the government response to the gene editing consultation conducted in England, would set out Westminster’s plans to pave the way to enable use of gene editing technologies, which could help better protect the environment.

He pointed out that gene editing was different from genetic modification, as it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and simply speeds up natural breeding processes – but under EU rules they were as strictly regulated as GM organisms.

“Leaving the EU allows the UK to set our own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies,” said Eustice.

Confirming that the current changes will be for research and development only, he said Defra would still need to be notified of such trials – and he added that for any products that were authorised for market, existing GMO rules would still apply.

Defra’s chief scientific advisor Gideon Henderson added that the government would work with farming and environmental groups to ensure that robust controls were in place to maintain food safety and environmental protection standards, while supporting the production of healthier food.

In Scotland Professor Helen Sang OBE, head of genetics at the Roslin Institute welcomed the change as a step towards reducing “unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers” to the use of advanced breeding techniques which, she said, were precise and targeted, allowing specific genetic changes to be made: “Gene editing offers major opportunities to address the combined challenges of rapidly increasing global demand for healthy and nutritious food with the goal of net zero carbon emissions.”

However, commenting recently on the issue, the Scottish government’s environment minister, Màiri McAllan said: “Scotland’s policy towards GMOs has not changed, and we have no plans for a similar review.

“As for gene-editing, we are disappointed Defra would choose to move unilaterally on this…the Scottish Government is committed to keeping aligned with the EU, and we are monitoring the EU’s position closely.”

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