FSA unveils streamlined approach to gene-edited crops

Plant breeders have welcomed proposals by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for a new streamlined, science-led approach to regulating gene-edited crops in England.

An FSA board meeting on Wednesday 20 September discussed plans for the regulation of precision bred food and feed products under the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.

Until recently, it was believed the FSA was planning to require a separate risk assessment, expert committee scrutiny, public consultation, approval by both Houses of Parliament and secretary of state sign-off for every precision-bred product.

See also: Debate: Gene editing the pros and cons for farming

Mirroring the regulatory process already adopted in Canada, and the approach proposed by the EU Commission in July, the FSA is now recommending a move away from the lengthy regulated products process currently applied to GMOs, novel foods and irradiated foods.

Instead, it is seeking to adopt a more streamlined process for precision-bred organisms (PBOs), more proportionate to the scientific evidence of risk.

The FSA’s proposals are due to be presented to parliament in summer 2024, and are scheduled to come into force at the end of next year.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture said the FSA  proposals could pave the way for England to take a leading position in the research, development and commercialisation of precision-bred products.

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), the representative body for the UK plant breeding industry, and crop science organisation Niab also welcomed the FSA’s recommendations.

BSPB chairman Robin Wood said: “By accelerating the development of improved crop varieties, more precise breeding technologies such as Crispr/Cas gene editing will help plant breeders keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change.”

Field trials

Niab said nine new field trials for gene-edited plants have been notified in England since simplified arrangements for research into gene-edited crops were introduced by the Westminster government last March.

These include trials of pod shatter-resistant oilseed rape, non-browning potatoes, omega-3-enriched camelina, tomatoes higher in provitamin B3 and low-asparagine wheat.

Niab chief executive Mario Caccamo said: “England could genuinely be on course to become one of the best places globally to invest in agri-food research and innovation.”

Devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have previously opposed the Precision Breeding Act, indicating their preference to remain aligned with the EU. Both administrations have remained tight-lipped over their plans since the EU’s deregulatory proposals were published in July.

Differing views

However, anti-genetic engineering lobby group Beyond GM remains sceptical.

“Under the FSA’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 proposals (see panel below), the vast majority of genetically modified precision bred organisms will pass into the food and feed system with no safety assessment, no monitoring, no labelling, no reliable traceability and no provisions for co-existence to protect non-GMO, organic, natural and artisanal producers and brands,” said the group’s director Pat Thomas.

“The presumption of safety and equivalence to traditionally-bred products does not reflect the science and the absence of enforcement measures means developers can easily scam the system.

“This is not what the public, farmers, food businesses or retailers want or deserve.”   

FSA two-tier system for regulation of gene-edited crops

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is proposing a two-tier system for the regulation of precision-bred organisms (PBOs) in England.

Tier 1 products are defined as very similar to traditionally bred products, which consumers are familiar with and for which potential safety risks are understood.

Tier 2 products are defined by the FSA as novel foods or PBOs with compositional changes that could affect toxicity or allergenicity, or other potential safety concerns. These would be subject to case-by-case risk assessment.

The FSA is an independent food safety watchdog that was set up by the government in 2000 to protect the public’s health and consumer interests, working across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.