On September 29, 2021, the government of the United Kingdom (U.K.) announced that it will introduce new regulations by the end of the year to relax the laws governing the development of gene-edited crops across England. Gene editing differs from genetic modification in that it does not introduce DNA from other species but instead uses a plant’s existing DNA to create new varieties that could also be produced through natural breeding processes. The government intends that “the focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.” The announcement was made following a consultation that sought public opinion on this topic.
The government has stated that it will take a cautious, “proportionate, science-based approach to regulation” and that it will review what measures will be required to enable gene-edited products to enter the market, emphasizing that high environmental and safety standards will be maintained.
The government plans to lay a statutory instrument, made under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, before Parliament by the end of the year to make the research and development of plants developed using gene-editing technologies easier by removing the requirement for a license to conduct open air trials of genetically edited crops:
Plant scientists will be able to carry out field trial research in England and test the safety and benefits of the new gene edited crops that could have been developed through traditional breeding methods, without requiring risk assessments and consents, which we see as unnecessary regulatory burdens at the field trial stage.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must still be notified of these research trials, and any subsequent commercial cultivation of gene-edited plants, along with any food products derived from them, must be authorized in accordance with the existing rules.
The government has stated that, after conducting a review of the regulatory definition of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it will introduce primary legislation to exclude those produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies from the definition, provided that the development of these plants can arise through traditional plant breeding methods.
The aim of relaxing the regulations is to help provide farmers with “… crops that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment, … reducing impacts on the environment.” The chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders has welcomed the government’s move, noting that traditional plant breeding methods have helped farmers produce almost 20% more crops over the past 20 years, which has saved farmers from having to expand farming operations that could have impacted ecosystems and generated an extra 300 million tons of greenhouse gases.The relaxation of the relevant laws is now permitted as a result of the U.K.’s departure from the EU, which requires gene-edited crops to be treated in the same manner as GMOs. GMOs are regulated in the EU with strict rules and “complex authorisation procedures [that must occur at the EU level] concerning their cultivation and commercialization.” Consequently, many companies consider it too onerous and expensive to get authorization to put these crops on the market and thus, no genetically altered crops have been developed in the EU. There may be change at the EU level for these regulations, as the EU Commission recently acknowledged that there are “strong indications that [GMO legislation] is not fit for purpose for some NGTs [new genomic techniques] and their products, and that it needs to be adapted to scientific and technological progress.”