UK considers reform to GMO regulations

Precise gene-editing technologies like CRISPR–Cas9 raise the prospect of new, more sophisticated, approaches to crop innovation. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently held a consultation with the aim of modernising the laws that apply to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The result could be a divergence from EU legislation with a relaxation of laws in respect of some genetically edited organisms.

What are GMOs?

As explained in DEFRA’s supporting documents, GMOs generally involve the introduction of genetic material into an organism. The classic example is lifting DNA from one species and inserting into a second species. The desired result is often an organism more resistant to a particular disease or which has some other positive trait, such as a tomato that can lower blood pressure. 

GMOs have hit the headlines over the past few decades. Whilst the science continues to develop – and more products appear on the market (DEFRA states that there are more than 60 genetically modified foods authorised for use in UK) – there has been some public reluctance (and opposition) to wider adoption of GMO-based products.

The aim of the consultation

In line with the UK Government’s “Build Back Greener” policy, DEFRA put forward an argument for greater nuance in laws regulating genetic editing and suggests that the focus when considering safety concerns should be on the characteristics and use of an organism, rather than on how an organism was produced.

The Consultation therefore sought opinions on broadly two questions (with the focus on question 1):

  • should a separate class - “genetically engineered organisms possessing genetic changes that could have been introduced by traditional breeding” (GEOs) - be carved out from other GMOs and treated differently?
  • how should GMO legislation be reformed more broadly?

The current law

Under existing law, there is no distinction between GEOs and GMOs. This was confirmed in 2018 in a controversial ruling of the European Court of Justice – regarded, at the time, as “a major setback for proponents of gene-edited crops”.

GEOs are therefore within the scope of GMOs and are caught by laws applicable to GMOs, such as Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003.

What will change – and when?

DEFRA proposes carving out GEOs from the statutory definition of GMOs (in the Environmental Protection Act 1990). This change could be made quickly and simply. If the UK presses ahead following the consultation, GEOs would fall outside the scope of laws applicable to GMOs and instead be governed by general food and health safety legislation. This could see increased innovation and use of novel products in Great Britain, although note that regulation in Northern Ireland will continue to track EU rules.

Any overhaul of the GMO rules more generally looks like a longer term project, although this may also introduce areas of divergence from the EU system.

James Edmonds

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