Report calls for end of ‘costly’ genetic modification prohibition
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A study from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has supported a proposal to relax restrictions on gene editing technology to improve crop yields and boost resistance to diseases.
The IEA report has backed the government's proposed Precision Breeding Bill, which aims to update the regulatory framework related to precision-bred plants and animals developed through techniques such as gene editing.
The think tank - which influenced the policy ideas of former prime minister Liz Truss - also said that the UK must go further than current reforms and embrace genetic modification.
Gene editing is a process of modifying the existing genetic material of an organism. It has been portrayed as a powerful tool that can boost sustainable farming, fight nutrient deficiencies and reduce consumer food prices.
Technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited more quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process, helping to target plant and animal breeding. Some proponents of the science argue that this could help the UK reach its climate and biodiversity goals in a safe and sustainable way.
Under the EU legislation currently in place in the UK, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetic modification, despite the fact that gene-edited organisms do not contain DNA from different species, unlike gene-modified ones.
The IEA report has described this regulatory framework as a “costly prohibition”.
However, the UK’s exit from the EU could allow for the introduction of new rules on the issue, including the proposed Precision Breeding Bill.
“After tolerating the EU’s outmoded genetic engineering rules for decades, England is poised to take a monumental step by allowing the commercial use of gene-editing in plant and animal breeding," said Cameron English, director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health and author of the IEA’s report.
“The technology can be safely utilised to boost crop yields, reduce pesticide use and improve animal welfare – to name just a few of its many benefits.
“Hopefully, England will continue its progress toward a science-based farm policy and approve the cultivation of genetically modified crops (GMOs) as well."
English also suggested ministers should go further by reforming the EU’s restrictions on genetically modified organisms and extending gene editing to animals, while criticising “activist groups and organic food producers” who oppose the legislation, saying their objections “do not stand up to scientific scrutiny”.
These critics include Liz O'Neill, director of GM Freeze, who said that the new regulations take away much-needed scrutiny.
"What has been removed is the need for an independent risk assessment and the need for transparency," she said.
Jo Lewis, policy director of the organic food body the Soil Association, was also critical of the bill, saying it "avoids dealing head-on with the transformation needed in our food and farming system for true security and resilience".
"We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues - unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests," he told BBC.
With 20-40 per cent of global crops being lost to pesticides and disease every year, the bill has been presented as an opportunity to help farmers to grow more productive crops, that are resistant to disease, pests and the effects of climate change.
However, polling conducted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that public support for the technology is not overwhelming. In the poll, 57 per cent of people said the use of GE crops was acceptable with 32 per cent believing it to be unacceptable.
Support increased to up to 70 per cent in favour of some environmentally beneficial applications, such as reduced use of pesticides and herbicides.
The UK government has said it will continue to work with farming and environmental groups to develop the right rules and ensure robust controls are in place to maintain the highest food safety standards, whilst simultaneously supporting the production of healthier food.
The bill is currently undergoing scrutiny in the House of Lords.
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