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UK to relax law on gene-edited food in post-Brexit change from EU

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill being introduced to Parliament will allow gene-edited crops to be developed and grown in England and sold in Great Britain

Environment 25 May 2022

Wheat fields

Wheat fields in Berkshire, UK

chloeimages / Alamy

The UK has begun the passage of a law that will allow the sale of food that has been gene-edited to improve human health and curb environmental impacts, in one of the country’s first big post-Brexit divergences with the European Union.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill introduced today will allow crops that have had their genome edited to be treated differently in England from genetically-modified organisms, which can involve foreign DNA from other species. There was a de facto ban on both under EU rules that the UK carried over when leaving the bloc, but GE crops could be developed, grown and sold in England if the law passes. They could also be sold in Wales and Scotland, but not in Northern Ireland as it is still subject to some EU rules as part of the Brexit agreement.

“These gene editing tools have the ability to mimic natural breeding, and generate changes within a species that we find desirable for one reason or another,” says Gideon Henderson, chief scientific adviser at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “There’s potential for UK economic growth in this area, also potential for UK environmental benefit.”

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This week, researchers revealed a tomato had been edited using CRISPR technology to make it a rich source of vitamin D. Other mooted uses for the technology include making more drought-resilient to cope with climate change, and creating crops resistant to diseases so farmers can use fewer pesticides, which have been linked to insect declines.

The vast majority of the UK public, 88 per cent, are opposed to the rule change allowing gene-edited food to be sold. However, to date there has been no major backlash akin to the one against GMO “Frankenfood” where campaigners ripped out crops in field trials more than two decades ago.

Accounts differ on when gene-edited food might be in shops. Environment minister George Eustice has claimed next year. Henderson says: “In the next four or five years, I would anticipate seeing a slew of potential new products arriving.” There are no plans to require retailers to label products that are gene-edited.

New Scientist asked the UK’s major supermarkets to confirm if they would be selling gene-edited food, but none of them were prepared to say yes.

Under the proposed law, only gene-edited crops with traits that could also be produced using traditional plant breeding will be allowed. An expert committee advising Eustice, ACRE, will decide if products meet that criteria or not, though exactly how is unclear at this stage.

The proposed rule changes, which the government is hoping become law later this year, initially apply only to crops. However, the law would mean secondary legislation, which does not require parliamentary scrutiny, could be given the green light for gene-editing in livestock later.

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