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Post-Brexit Britain eager to relax EU-era laws on gene-editing

By ANGUS McNEICE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-05-26 09:45

Legislation that seeks to allow gene editing in agriculture entered the United Kingdom's Parliament on Wednesday, in a move that could pave the way for more resistant and productive plants and farm animals.

By using gene-editing techniques, scientists say they can increase yields from crops and make them more resistant to disease and drought.

The government says if passed by lawmakers, its Genetic Technology Bill would bolster domestic and global food security because innovations made in UK labs could be shared with the world. Authorities in London claims the changes would make British agriculture more competitive and has trumpeted the proposed bill as one the major benefits of Brexit.

In recent years, several countries, including Canada, Argentina, and China, have relaxed agriculture gene-editing laws, but the practice is still highly regulated within the European Union.

"Outside the EU, we are free to follow the science," said UK Environment Secretary George Eustice. "These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients."

The planned legislation has been broadly welcomed by agricultural experts, including David Rose, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Cranfield University, who said gene editing "has the potential to address many food production and environmental challenges" while cautioning that it must also be regulated responsibly.

"There are legitimately held concerns about the potential for gene editing to consolidate power inequalities in the food supply chain, ethical concerns, particularly about usage in animals, and the potential to facilitate greater intensification of farming, which could harm the environment," Rose said.

There are broadly two methods by which scientists directly alter the genomes of plants and animals. One is by inserting genes from one organism into another, so-called genetic modified organisms, or GMO. An example of this is the Piper Plus potato developed by UK scientists, which is resistant to blight thanks to a gene from a species of wild potato and two genes from American black nightshade.

The second technique involves gene-editing systems like CRISPR, through which scientists tweak an organism's existing genome without adding any genes. EU regulations currently group both GMOs and gene editing together. In a departure from EU standards, the UK is initially looking to loosen regulations on gene editing.

There has been longstanding debate about the potential unintended consequences of GMOs since the early 1990s, when the term "franken-food" first appeared in the media, and some campaigners are fearful of further deregulation.

But the government says the new legislation would allow for genetic changes that "could have occurred naturally, or could have been created using traditional breeding".

Pat Thomas, who is director of the pressure group Beyond GM, called these criteria "poorly defined, scientifically unclear, and highly disputed".

"The government's goal is total deregulation, but last year's public consultation showed that 85 percent of respondents wanted to see gene editing regulated as GMO," Thomas said.

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