Gene geniuses add another twist to Brexit food future

Close-up of ears of golden ripe wheat
Gene-editing promises better yields and environmental benefits. Photo credit: “Wheat field” by elias_daniel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A potential shake-up of the agricultural sector is on its way, post-Brexit, with the government promoting the little-known technology of gene-editing. A 10-week industry consultation was trailed by Environment Secretary George Eustice at the Oxford Farming Conference. And the public too are expected to have their say.

Gene-editing enables genetic material to be added, removed or altered, but differs from its more controversial cousin genetic modification (GM) in that it mimics slower, more traditional breeding methods. 

The European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that gene-editing be regulated in the same way as genetic modification. The EU defines GM as a process where “the genetic material of the resulting organisms has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”. 

However, the UK government sees Brexit as an opportunity to diverge from the EU ruling. Interestingly, French agriculture minister Didier Guillaume, recently signalled that his government took a similar view in this approach to gene-editing.

Sustainability potential

The potential benefit of gene-editing is that it offers the potential to make crops more resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather, so could help the UK more sustainably reach its vital climate and biodiversity goals. 

The industry consultation will mainly focus on the desirability of freeing gene-editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as GM. This different way of approaching gene-editing has already been adopted in several countries, among them the USA, Japan, Argentina and Australia. The consultation will also begin to gather evidence on what controls are needed and how best to deliver them.

This all heralds a shift towards a more permissive and evidence-based approval process similar to that in the US. It departs from the ‘precautionary principle’ practised by the EU, which is designed to identify and minimise risks to consumers and is applied to all innovations. This results in a longer and more rigorous review process.

While the government has delayed long-awaited legislation until autumn 2021, its Environment Bill is expected to herald major changes. A new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELM) will aim to incentivise farmers to deliver Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and other environmentally sustainable cultivation methods.  Their direct payments will also be phased-out over a seven-year period. 

From 2024, the aim is for all farmers to have a pest management plan, which will  include the use of organic ‘bio-pesticides’. But equally this could benefit gene-edited crops.

There are several areas, however, where the industry consultation process has its limitations. It will only apply at first to England. The reaction of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish farming ministers to the Oxford speech suggests they will, for now at least, maintain a more cautious approach to gene-edited crops in line with their distrust of GM.

If gene-edited crops are approved for cultivation, the question arises how food and feedstuffs containing them can be traded with the rest of the UK, let alone with the 27 EU member states.       

There is also the issue of consumer and retailer acceptance. Prof Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific advisor, has said that, despite no longer being bound by the EU’s precautionary principle, gene-edited products will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, mislead consumers, or have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods.

So, a separate consultation exercise will target consumers. Leading supermarket buyers such as Waitrose have made it clear that consumer acceptance is vital. Speaking at a recent press conference, James Bailey, executive director for the supermarket Waitrose, warned that consumers tend to be averse to gene-editing, highlighting that customers want to know “where their food comes from and how it is produced. If our customers don’t buy the food, there is no point,” he said. 

Consumer studies

In the same article, Martin Häusling, agriculture spokesman for the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, said that “consumer studies have demonstrated again and again that consumers do not want GM food and feed”. European products had “a very good international reputation, partly because they are free of genetic engineering”.

The agricultural industry is, however, optimistically eyeing the potential results of the consultation process. Some of the country’s internationally respected agricultural research institutes see it as an opportunity to begin to boost not only crops such as British wheat, but to benefit farmers in poorer countries. 

The commercial reality of any products being planted on farms across England and sold on our supermarket shelves may be several years away, even if approved. Before then, too, the public must be won over to the benefits.

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