In early January 2021, a consultation was launched that asks whether organisms produced by genetic engineering should continue to be classified as genetically modified, if the organisms could have been developed using traditional breeding methods.
The consultation is especially focused on gene editing, also known as genome editing, a technology that allows scientists to add, remove or alter an organism’s DNA.
Unlike older types of ‘transgenic’ genetic modification, this process doesn’t introduce foreign DNA into the gene. In a speech launching the consultation, Environment Secretary George Eustice said gene editing raises “far fewer ethical or biological concerns” than transgenic modification and “respects the rules of nature”.
In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that gene-edited crops should be considered the same as other genetically modified crops under EU law, a ruling Eustice called “flawed and stifling to scientific progress”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson shares a similar view. In 2019 he pledged to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic-modification rules”.
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Gene editing is a relatively new and fast-evolving technology. The first type of gene editing, using CRISPR/Cas9, was only developed in 2012 (the two women that developed it won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry).
Views on regulating the use of gene editing in producing genetically modified animals or crops have generally fallen into two camps, says Prof Katherine Denby from the University of York, who works on new ways to improve crops using tools such as gene editing.
The first camp argues that as gene-edited crops or livestock could have arisen through traditional breeding processes, they should not be classed as genetically modified organisms, meaning they wouldn’t be subject to genetic modification regulations.
The second camp holds that any organism made through gene editing should be regulated as a genetically modified organism, regardless of whether the final product could have been made using traditional breeding. Countries such as the US, Australia and Japan have taken the former, more relaxed, approach, while the EU has taken the latter, more stringent one.
Current UK regulations mean gene-edited crops can technically come to market, but the regulatory process is both lengthy and extremely costly, says Denby.
“It’s really prohibiting the development of products, both crops and genome-edited livestock, just because of that cost,” she says. This, in turn, is prohibiting the development of traits that are for public good, such as disease resistance, she says.
For example, her own work aims to replicate the disease resistance found in older and wild relatives of lettuce in more modern varieties, a process that will go many times faster using gene editing rather than traditional breeding.
But other scientists are more sceptical about the benefits that gene editing can bring and are concerned about its potential dangers.
“This technology comes with innate risks to alter the genetic composition, the patterns of gene function,” says Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the gene expression and therapy group at King’s College London. “In doing so you change the plant’s biochemistry.”
Antoniou says gene editing is not as highly precise as is often claimed and can bring about unintended mutations. “Worryingly, those who are developing gene-edited crops and foods are ignoring the risks,” he says.
For instance, gene editing could run the risk of producing novel toxins or allergens, or increasing the levels of pre-existing toxins and allergens, especially in plants, he says.
“Without strict safety checks, it’s possible that crops that are potentially harmful could enter the marketplace unlabelled and would therefore also be difficult to trace if any adverse outcomes were to be found,” he adds.
In Antoniou’s view, gene editing is “unquestionably” a genetic modification procedure and should continue being regulated in the UK as it is in the EU.
But many scientists argue that gene editing is crucial to supporting a more sustainable food system.
“Genome editing is already used in medicine and has immense potential for tackling major agricultural challenges related to food security, climate change and sustainability,” says Prof Denis Murphy from the University of South Wales.
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Denby agrees and says gene editing can play a part in making the UK’s food system more sustainable, healthy and affordable, while admitting it’s “not going to be a magic bullet”.
But for Antoniou the focus really needs to be on the agricultural system as a whole, rather than improving individual crops and seeds.
Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association, has called gene editing a “sticking plaster” that diverts vital investment and attention from other more effective solutions.
“The focus needs to be on how to restore exhausted soils, improve diversity in cropping, integrate livestock into rotations and reduce dependence on synthetic nitrogen and pesticides,” he says. “We want to see immediate progress in these areas rather than using Brexit to pursue a deregulatory agenda for genetic modification.”