U.K. Looks at Allowing Gene Editing to Boost Farming

The U.K. is looking at changing regulations to allow gene editing in farming, in a sign of shifting agricultural policy following the nation’s departure from the European Union.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting on whether to regulate certain gene-editing organisms differently from genetically modified products, it said in a statement released before a speech by Environment Secretary George Eustice.

“What we have now that we did not have in the 1960s is the ability to harness the genetic resources that Mother Nature has provided to tackle the challenges of our age,” Eustice said Thursday at the Oxford Farming Conference. “Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence, and it starts today with a new consultation”

England is overhauling its farm policy after leaving the EU on Dec. 31. The government said in November it would replace the system of EU subsidies with payments to England’s farmers for efforts in environmental protection. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can shape their own policies.

Gene editing technology is hailed by proponents as a way to improve human welfare, yet others are concerned about potential medical and ethical consequences. The technique, which uses a “cut and paste” method, differs from conventional genetic modification in that it doesn’t introduce foreign DNA into organisms. It has been used for wheat, canola and sugar beet, and researchers are studying whether it can help make pigs and chickens more resistant to diseases.

Genetically modified crops are largely banned by the EU, and those allowed -- such as crops for animal feed -- are strictly regulated. The bloc’s highest court ruled in 2018 that gene editing should be subject to the same restrictions.

Eustice called that decision “flawed and stifling to scientific progress,” according to the government statement. Allowing gene editing could unlock substantial benefits to the environment, such as by using fewer pesticides, and produce crops that are resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather, he said. The technique is used in Argentina, Australia and Japan.

The National Farmers’ Union welcomed the consultation, which runs until March 17, saying new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing could benefit U.K. farming and the environment, and play a critical role helping achieve net-zero emissions targets.

“We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future,” Tom Bradshaw, the lobbying group’s vice president, said in a statement.

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