'We take a science-based approach to GM regulation': UK to consider relaxing gene editing ban post Brexit

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

UK urged to distinguish between gene editing and GMOs ©iStock/adgafoto
UK urged to distinguish between gene editing and GMOs ©iStock/adgafoto

Related tags: GMO, Gmo labeling, gene editing

The UK has confirmed it will ‘consider’ relaxing the European Union’s controversial decision to include gene editing techniques within its regulatory framework that restricts the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food chain after Brexit.

In an open letter to the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, 33 agri-tech scientists called on the government to provide clarity on the future of gene edited crops in the UK,after the European Court of Justice extended restrictions placed on GMOs to include gene editing techniques in July​. 

The UK government has already indicated it will incorporate EU legislation governing GMOs into British law. However, the signatories of the letter – which was drawn up by Oxfordshire farmer and editor of Crop Production Magazine ​Tom Allen-Stevens – are hoping that there will be room for compromise on so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs).

The letter states: “We feel there are significant questions that must be addressed urgently by government if the UK is to retain its strength in plant genetics, to use innovation to boost productivity and competitiveness, and to meet the challenges of nutritional health and environmental protection.”

In response, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said that the government would “consider”​ the points raised in the letter and issue a reply "in due course​".

On the government’s general position, the spokesperson said that the UK had backed exempting gene editing from the EU’s GMO regulations but recognised the EJC decision to include it.

“The government has always been clear that we take a science-based approach to GM regulation and our priority is safeguarding health and the environment,”​ the spokesperson said.

“Our view remains that gene-edited organisms should not be subject to GM regulation if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. [However] the European Court of Justice has decided otherwise and this judgement is now binding in the UK.”

GMOs versus gene editing: what’s the difference?

In their letter, the agri-scientists expressed concerns that the the ban will block future innovation in gene editing for animal and plant breeding, therefore leaving the UK’s food sector to fall behind other countries who use these advanced technologies.

Europe has stringent rules governing the use of genetically modified crops and animals in the food chain. While research has not currently indicated any heightened risk from GMOs, restrictions reflect the strong anti-GM public opinion among European consumers.

According to the European Commission, a GMO is defined as “an organism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering to include genes that it would not normally contain”.

Under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed, GMOs must receive approval from the EC following a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and evaluation by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health before they can be cultivated.

The European Union has a low adoption rate for genetically modified foods, with the only authorised GM crop—an insect-resistant corn—currently grown on 150,000 hectares spread over five member states. That is less than 1.5% of the total EU maize surface and compares to global GM cultivation of 175m hectares.

Europe also requires products containing GMO ingredients above a 0.9% threshold to be “clearly​” labelled. The European Parliament established that packaging must state: “This product contains genetically modified organisms"​ or “this product contains genetically modified [name of organism(s)]"​ directly on the label. All non-packaged products that contain GMOs must include the statement within the product display.

Unlike genetic engineering, when genetic code is inserted, gene editing techniques like Crispr-CAS can be used as an advanced plant-breeding tool that facilitates crop breeding by making cuts at specific locations in a plant genome. Subsequent repair of the cut by the cell’s endogenous repair mechanism can introduce precise changes.

The system works with the native characteristics in the crop and does not introduce new genes. Proponents argue that this means the new biotechnology poses fewer risk factors than GMOs and the process is frequently compared to traditional crop breeding techniques.

However, earlier this year the EJC ruled that these new plant breeding techniques are GMOs as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of a plant in a way that does not occur naturally.

“It follows that those organisms come, in principle, within the scope of the GMO Directive and are subject to the obligations laid down by that directive,”​ the ruling stated.

Concerns over weakened food standards

The UK government has been plagued by allegations that it will weaken food safety standards to secure trade deals after it leaves the European Union next March.

The US, in particular, has been pushing for the UK to accept its food standards, which would allow the import of chlorine-rinsed chicken and beef fed growth hormones.

Only this week, food safety experts warned against accepting hormone-treated beef to secure a trade deal with the US​as an “unnecessary and unacceptable risk”. 

“Food standards in the EU are far higher than those in the USA, and US standards are far higher than WTO standards. The UK should at least stick to EU; the only changes allowed should be to make food safer, never less safe,”​ co-author of the report, Hormone-treated beef: Should Britain accept it after Brexit?​, Professor Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex, argued.

Related topics: GM food, Food safety, Sustainability, Policy

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4 comments

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- A Reminder to Dr. Michael Antoniou -

Posted by Thomas Baldwin,

This is a reminder to Dr. Michael Antoniou to make available the raw data on his publication:
https://www.nature.com/articles/srep37855

This raw data has not be available after two year of requesting it and their promises to share it.

I'm glad Dr. Antoniou has time to address comments on gene-editing, where he makes similar arguments as in his paper. However, his publication had impacted regulation and understanding of "unintended consequences" of transgenesis without providing substantiating evidence to the fact. Scientists have grave reservations about his paper and it's not been addressed for two years.

If Dr. Michael Antoniou wants people to take his concerns seriously, then he should take his own work seriously and provide the data requested two years ago.

Read the thread of requests here:
https://twitter.com/mem_somerville/status/1040601917901221893

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A ban or not a ban?

Posted by Garlich von Essen,

Lawyers rightly point out that the ECJ decision on the classification of advanced mutagenesis techniques was not about a ban of those techniques or their resulting products but 'just' about a correct interpretation of the letter of the law. Still, the practical effect of subjecting them to the existing GM rules of the EU not only de facto means a ban due to prohibitive costs and a politicized procedure that is widely acknowledged to be completely dysfunctional. It also is a de jure ban in those 19 Member States that have established a blanket ban on the planting of all GM plants for their territory.
So if the ruling has the effect of a ban throughout the EU, and actually subjects the resulting plants to established legal cultivation bans in most Member States - well, then one may probably just call it that way.

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ECJ ruling on gene editing editing true to the law and science

Posted by Dr Michael Antoniou,

There are number of technical errors in this article.

The European Court of Justice (EJC) in no way imposed a "ban" on gene editing as stated in the title of this article ("UK to consider relaxing gene editing ban post Brexit"). The EU legal definition of a genetically modified organism states "genetically modified organism (GMO) means an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination". The ECJ ruling acknowledges the fact that gene editing constitutes an artificial, laboratory-based genetic modification process , which alters the genetic material of an organism in a manner that does not involve either mating or recombination. Therefore, gene editing gives rise to GMOs that fall under the regulations governing these products. The ECJ has thus been true to both the law and the science by ruling that the products of gene editing destined for agricultural use are GMOs and should be appropriately regulated (and not banned as implied).

Gene editing is far from a perfect procedure with completely predictable outcomes as is frequently claimed by those who advocate its use in agriculture. Unpredictable, unexpected outcomes can arise from the introduced intended genetic change as well as mutations in other genes from the inevitable off-target editing events that will be present. Thus gene edited GMOs are associated with both environmental and public health concerns. The regulation of gene editing ensures that environmental and health risks are addressed before their marketing approval.

Finally, the use of gene editing within a human gene therapy context has unquestionably been viewed as a genetic modification procedure which should be regulated as such. The regulation of gene edited crops as GMOs simply puts it on par with how this powerful technology used and regulated within a the medical sphere. This is a responsible way forward.

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