Farming - Gene-editing red tape cut but Scots ban stays

New rules to reduce the red tape surrounding field-scale trials of gene-edited crops were formally passed at Westminster this week.

Genetically modified maize
Genetically modified maize

But while the UK Government claimed the new regulatory approach would let scientists in England assess new crops in real-world conditions more easily, Scottish scientists are unlikely to see the new flexibility extended north of the Border.

The UK’s minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation, Jo Churchill, said that the move away from carry-over EU regulations would increase the country’s ability to harness the potential of gene editing to efficiently help grow plants that were more nutritious, beneficial to the environment, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to disease and pests. “New genetic technologies could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss,” she added.

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

However, it was made plain that the new regulatory approach would apply only to England, with the Devolved administrations having the power to make their own decision. The Scottish Government has repeatedly made plain its continued opposition to genetically modified crops – and has been keen to maintain alignment with the EU’s current interpretation which, despite the resulting organisms containing no additional genes or DNA, places the same stringent controls as are applied to transgenic genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which do.

Commenting on the Westminster announcement yesterday, a spokesperson for the administration said: “Scotland’s policy on GMOs has not changed. We remain opposed to the use of GM in farming, to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry.

“We are aware of current debate around novel genomic techniques and how these relate to existing GM legislation, and we note in particular the ongoing consideration of this at EU level. The Scottish Government’s policy is to stay aligned with the EU, where practicable, and we are closely monitoring the EU’s position on this issue.” The relaxation of the regulatory burden in England follows a full consultation south of the Border – and marks a major departure from the strict approach taken by the EU on gene-edited crops.

The UK Government argued that Brexit offered greater flexibility which would allow scientists across England to undertake plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies such as gene editing, more easily.

“The rules will apply to plants where gene editing is used to create new varieties similar to those which could have been produced more slowly through traditional breeding processes and will unlock research opportunities to grow crops which are more nutritious, and which require less pesticide use,” said Defra’s Churchill.

She said the legislation was the first step towards adopting a more “scientific and proportionate” approach to the regulation of genetic technologies, which would allow UK scientists to further unlock innovation using these technologies: “Harnessing the genetic resources nature has provided through genetic technologies will create new opportunities for farmers to grow more resilient crops…and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.”

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