Defra consultation looks set to relax restrictions on gene editing in farming

A ten-week consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the question of relaxing restrictions on gene editing in farming closes this week (Wednesday 17 March.)

'Gene editing' is different from genetic modification, which involves the insertion of DNA from one species into another.  Countries such as Australia, Japan, Argentina, the US and Brazil allow gene editing in agriculture, although its use is still limited.

The Defra consultation is divided into two parts:

Part 1 - Focuses on the regulation of gene edited (GE) organisms possessing genetic changes which could have been introduced by traditional breeding.

Part 2 – Is aimed at collating views on the wider regulatory framework governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Government is to publish a response to the consultation within the following three months and indications are that a lifting of the restrictions are likely. 

Defra’s own view is that organisms produced by GE or by other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.  Responses have been broadly supportive of gene editing, with its’ potential to address pest and disease pressures on crops and livestock, increasing resilience in the event of extreme weather events and help provide for a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.  Additional benefits of gene editing for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes.

EU legislation controlling the use of GMOs was retained in the UK at the end of the transition period (after 31 December 2020). This retained legislation requires that all GE organisms are classified as GMOs irrespective of whether they could be produced by traditional breeding methods. In 2018, the European Court of Justice in C-528/16 Confédération paysanne and Others   controversially ruled that gene editing was essentially the same as genetic modification and should be subject to the same tight rules.  Those in favour of restrictions tend to refer to the novelty of the techniques, to the speed with which genetic modifications are now possible, indications from research that the techniques could have problematic consequences and promoting a more precautionary approach.  

It looks likely that in response to this consultation Defra may change the legislation to amend the definition of a GMO as it applies in England. Currently GMOs are defined in section 106 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.  This would mean that this legislation does not apply to organisms produced by gene editing (GE) and other genetic technologies if they could have been developed using traditional breeding methods.

The responses from part 2 of the consultation will be used to inform policy development and stakeholder engagement plans on any potential wider GMO reform.

This, if passed, will be the first significant move away from EU orthodoxy in such a key area. 

It will provide opportunity for further research and development for the UK and may fit with the recent Agriculture Act with it's emphasis on promotion of public goods; in the main, environmental actions on soil, pollution, biodiversity, climate and more..  

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