New bill to unlock gene editing nears royal assent

The UK government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is set to receive royal assent, the final step towards the new legislation on gene editing.

The bill has passed through both houses of parliament and it will soon be signed into law.

A date for royal assent is yet to be scheduled, but Farmers Weekly understands this is only weeks away.

Outside of the EU’s rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it aims to develop a new legislative framework in England for products developed through new plant breeding techniques, such as gene editing.

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

Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer, chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on science and technology in agriculture.

Mr Sturdy says precision breeding techniques such as gene editing are really a natural evolution of conventional breeding – and these techniques should be expanded to allow plant breeders to develop more nutritious and resilient crops, which require fewer pesticides.

“This is an important milestone for genetic innovation in agriculture, opening up the potential for scientists and breeders to help farmers keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity and resource-use efficiency, reduced chemical use, and resilience to climate change,” said the MP.

It will also align the UK with the regulatory approach of other countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Australia and Japan, which do not regulate gene-edited products as GMOs.

But royal assent is not the end of the process, and the legislation will not come into force until about 30 pieces of secondary legislation are passed, which could take 18-24 months.

Defra backing

The bill is sponsored by Defra and its chief scientist, Gideon Henderson, has said it could take at least five years before gene-edited crop 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 working on a field trial for gene-edited wheat with reduced levels of a cancer-causing compound commonly found in toasted bread.

Meanwhile, British Sugar has invested in a project with Tropic Biosciences to explore how gene editing can be used to produce sugar beet crops resistant to virus yellows.

The NFU has given its backing for precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, saying it could offer “huge opportunities” for farmers.

But pressure group Beyond GM has warned the new legislation will only benefit the biotech industry.

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