Government plans to accelerate the use of genetic technology have received a boost, with the publication of a new report setting out ways to free up the approvals process.
Produced by the Regulatory Horizons Council – an independent advisor to government – the report emphasises the many benefits of so-called “second-generation genetic technologies” – including gene editing – which, it says, could transform farming.
The report suggests the wider use of gene editing could deliver “nutritionally healthier crops, disease resistance, reduced insecticide and fungicide use, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to sustainability and biodiversity conservation”.
“At a time of growing public opposition to the use of chemicals in agriculture, but low take-up of organic farming, genetic technologies promise to allow the protection of crops and animals with significantly less use of synthetic chemicals,” it says.
To speed the commercial uptake of novel genetic technologies, the council is recommending a change in regulatory approach.
Product approval should still guarantee food safety, but there should be a better balance between the precautionary principle and potential future benefits.
It suggests that “standards and guidelines, instead of hard law” should help, adding that, while any organism produced using genetic technology should be considered by regulators, the end product rather than the process involved should determine its approval.
Writing in the foreward to the report, Peter Kearns, a special adviser to policy think tank Re-Imagine Europa, emphasised the need for a more proportionate approach.
“It is clear that ‘one-size’ does not fit all,” he said. “One of the clearest examples is the special case of simple genome editing, which can lead to new plant varieties that could have arisen in nature or during conventional plant breeding, as compared with GMOs [genetically modified organisms] that involve transgenic material.”
But he also stressed the need to consider the international dimensions of genetic technologies – to innovate, “but without being out of step with major trading partners”.
The report follows a government consultation in the first part of this year, in which Defra set out its plans to differentiate between gene-edited crops, which could also be produced by natural mutation, and GMOs.
The findings of that consultation are expected in the coming weeks.
But business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has already said he agrees with most of what the Regulatory Horizons Council has said.
“There are substantial opportunities for the UK from genetic technologies and it is by ensuring a proportionate regulatory approach that we can fully take advantage of these,” he said in a letter to council chairman Cathryn Ross.
“It is our ambition to make the UK the world’s most agile regulatory system, focused on continual adaptation to new products and technologies. Our exit from the EU provides the perfect opportunity to achieve this for the products of genetic technologies.”
Reaction to the report
Dr Belinda Clarke,
Director of Agri-TechE, the innovation network for agri-tech
We welcome recommendations by the Regulatory Horizons Council. Rapid breeding techniques such as gene editing offer potential to enhance food security and increase resilience to climate change, however appropriate and transparent regulation is critical.
Our knowledge of the genome has increased significantly since the legislation was first passed. Recent technologies in gene editing have greatly enhanced the ease with which specific genetic changes can be made, increasing the opportunities of applying it in animal and plant breeding.
Currently there are barriers associated with investigating and adopting some new genomic technologies and this is stifling innovation, even where the same result may have been achieved by so-called conventional breeding.
With Defra’s future emphasis on increased farmer engagement in R&D, regulatory reform offers an opportunity to help the industry explore new products and practices for the agriculture of the future.
It is important, however, that a country that exports food products thinks carefully about the markets that those products go into and their attitude to gene editing. So transparent regulation and advanced provenance – to enable distinct and separate supply chains to exist where appropriate – should also be a consideration going forward.
Agri-TechE will be holding an “Advances in breeding for agriculture – new tools for new solutions” virtual event on 23 September
Director of environmental lobby group, Beyond GM
We are very disappointed with this report, which has failed to take on board the broader socio-economic and ethical concerns around the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.
In particular, it upholds the concept of “substantial equivalence”, which is highly contested and therefore an unsatisfactory basis for regulatory reform.
Significantly, it proposes a shift from the implementation of clear regulations to a more vague “guidelines and standards” approach, and then fudges what these guidelines and standards might be.
The proposal is essentially that government should just start experimenting with a light-touch regulatory approach for so-called “simple” genome editing, to see if it can get it right – an approach which is clearly not acceptable to consumers and, given the environmental and economic unknowns, should not be acceptable to farmers.
The council talks about greater stakeholder engagement, but in compiling its report it has shown that its version of stakeholder engagement is extremely narrow.
By dodging key issues such as the definition of genome editing and the need to develop agreed criteria for assessing risk or benefit, it compounds many of the vagaries of the government consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies. It is a worrying prequel to Defra’s soon-to-be published consultation report.
For more from Beyond GM, visit its A Bigger Conversation analysis