During the virtual Oxford Farming Conference, held earlier this month, George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in England, announced that a comment period has commenced regarding gene editing of crops and livestock in the country.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) comment period will be in effect for 10 weeks, ending on March 17. If there’s enough interest, this could lead to legislative change in the next two years.
In gene editing, organisms produce changes that can be made slowly using traditional breeding methods. For instance, farmers can plan to breed stronger, healthier animals or plants so that the next generation contains these beneficial traits.
Currently, gene editing in Europe is regulated in the same way as genetic modification, but because the UK is no longer part of the European Union, that can be changed. Defra’s opinion is that organisms produced by gene editing or other genetic technologies should not be regulated as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.
David Acheson, strategic advisor and food safety chair for PathogenDx, Inc., notes that gene editing is not a new concept and is essentially a process by which genes can be edited in very specific ways to cut out sections of the genetic material with the goal of altering a characteristic of a food item, such as a plant.
“The pros of such an approach is that one can edit in or out specific characteristics, such as drought tolerance which is seen by some as valuable in environments where water supply is scarce,” he tells Food Quality & Safety. “The approach is not that different conceptually from GMO, bio engineering, and even conventional breeding—although the latter is considered as ‘natural’ vs. ‘man-made.’” The cons, Acheson says, are as with any genetic manipulation, ensuring one does not create a new variant with deleterious consequences and the bigger issue of acceptance by consumers.
“There are already regulations in place around genetic modifications and approval processes before genetically edited/modified foods can be sold to consumers,” Acheson says. “While there are economic and societal opportunities, there will be continued pushback on the concept of GMO by some. Likely, this will only change when the benefits outweigh the risks.”
“As with all novel foods, gene edited foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods,” says Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific advisor.
This type of technology is not unique to England and is being looked at in other countries, including the U.S., to improve the properties and resilience of crops. “The U.S. is already using gene editing tools such as CRISPR, and these tools are regulated by both USDA and FDA,” Acheson says. “The same hurdles exist for use in the U.S. as the UK. It is likely that this technology will be used globally in time as populations grow and the need to feed more people with fewer resources continues to become a priority.”