A consultation has been initiated by the Government to amend existing strict EU rules
According to a consultation launched by the government on Thursday, gene editing of crops and animals could soon be permitted for the first time in England.
The ministers said that reforming the current strict EU rules and making gene editing virtually impossible for crops and animals would bring far-reaching benefits to consumers and farmers, including healthy food, improved environmental performance and improved animal welfare.
However, some organizations in the field of environmental and animal welfare have raised concerns that relaxation of the regulations could lead to animal welfare degradation, such as if the technology was used to encourage faster growth over animal health or to enable animals to be housed in crowded facilities.
Gene editing includes cutting and splicing DNA sections within a single genome in order to make changes previously possible only through long, selective plant and animal breeding. This is a separate method from genetic engineering, in which DNA is introduced into another species from one species, and remains subject to an almost complete prohibition.
George Eustice, Undersecretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said, “Gene editing has the opportunity to use the genetic resources that Mother Nature has provided to address the challenges of our time. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reduce costs for farmers and environmental impacts, and help us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.”
Gene editing may produce crops that need or have improved nutritional properties with less pesticides or fertilizers. Tomatoes that can lower blood pressure have, for instance, recently been licensed for sale in Japan.
In order to allow the breeding of animals immune to major diseases, animal genes could also be changed, which would minimize the need for antibiotics and therefore the risk of developing resistant superbugs.
Peter Stevenson, senior policy advisor for the Compassion in World Farming campaign organization, however, said that the way farm animals have been bred for profitable traits in the past indicates that gene editing development may be dangerous to animals. In broiler chickens, where rapid growth rates contributed to leg defects and lameness, he pointed to genetic selection, and in laying hens, where osteoporosis was caused by selection for high egg production, rendering the hens vulnerable to bone fractures.
Disease-resistant breeding animals would only allow farmers to manage them more intensively, he said, contributing to overcrowding and decreased animal welfare. “This is pushing us down the path of industrial agriculture,”This is pushing us down the industrial agriculture path. “It’s perpetuating an antiquated system of farming that we would be better off abandoning.”
“We question the speed with which the government is using Brexit to pursue a deregulation agenda in this area,” Gareth Morgan, head of agriculture at the Soil Association, said.
It is necessary for proper protection to be provided to citizens and farmers who do not want to eat or grow genetically modified crops or animals.
Prof. Gideon Henderson, senior scientist at Defra, said the government has made clear its commitment to maintaining animal welfare standards: “The motivation for this is not about lowering animal welfare standards – it’s about the benefits.”
The invention of tools, such as Crispr-Cas9, has made gene editing possible, allowing scientists to target, delete or modify parts of DNA or turn on or off specific genes.
Created in 2012, Crispr is inexpensive and has become commonly used by scientists.
But in 2018, the European Court of Justice controversially ruled that gene editing is essentially the same as genetic modification and should be subject to the same strict rules. Genetically modified crops are subject to an almost complete ban in the EU, although a few have received approval.
Henderson said allowing gene editing in England did not impact trade in agricultural products with the EU, the largest market for British farmers. “It will have to be taken into account in our exports to the EU – there are ways to label genetically modified crops so they can be targeted to markets