Gene-edited crops moves closer after bill gains royal assent

A parliamentary bill for gene-edited food crops to be developed, grown and sold in England has passed into law.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act received royal assent on Thursday 23 March, following 10 months of debate across both houses of parliament.

See also: First gene-edited wheat field trial successful, say scientists

The bill updates regulation of precision-bred organisms in England and seeks to enable breeders to use gene-editing technologies, such as Crispr-9/CAS9, to develop more resilient, healthier, and higher-yielding crops.

But devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not approved the commercial use of gene editing.

Under the provisions of the act, a new science-based and streamlined regulatory system will be introduced to facilitate greater research and innovation in precision breeding – with stricter regulations remaining in place for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The UK government will take a “precautionary, step-by-step approach” to rolling out the new legislation, bringing in precision breeding for plants first, followed by farm animals later.

However, a further vote by MPs will be required before this can be implemented.

Defra chief scientist Gideon Henderson said: “The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes.”

Royal assent of the bill represents a significant milestone, but it is not the end of the legislative process.

FSA role

Secondary implementing provisions could take another two years to pass through parliament, meaning the new rules may not come into force before the next general election. 

Before any changes to market, the Food Standards Agency will need to consult on a separate approval process for food and feed marketing and produce a new proportionate risk assessment for precision-bred food and feed.

Defra says it could take at least five years before gene-edited crops could be available for farmers to grow commercially in England.

Work to develop gene-edited crops is under way in the UK.

Rothamsted Research is carrying out field trials of gene-edited wheat with reduced levels of a cancer-causing compound commonly found in toasted bread.

Crop research institute Niab has been using gene editing experimentally in a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, rice and strawberries, for several years.

But Pat Thomas, campaign director of Beyond GM, said the only people who stand to benefit from GE technology are biotech companies.

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