wheat field

The move could further complicate food trade and environmental challenges between the UK and EU

The UK’s food market could be set to further diverge from its nearest neighbours after updated plans to allow research into gene editing in crops were announced by Defra.

New legislation was laid before parliament at the end of last week, as a “first step towards adopting a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies”.

Defra said the move would “cut unnecessary red tape for gene editing research and development” – changes that were “made possible by the UK’s departure from the EU”, where strict rules dating to the 1990s mostly rule out the genetic modification of food.

The latest technology had “great potential to help farmers grow more resistant, nutritious, and productive crops”, Defra added, while the government’s chief science advisor Gideon Henderson described gene editing as “a powerful tool that will help us make plant breeding more efficient and precise by mimicking natural processes that currently take many years to complete”.

The UK’s new rules are to apply only “to plants where gene editing is used to create new varieties similar to those which could have been produced more slowly through traditional breeding processes”, Defra confirmed, while stressing it would “never compromise high safety, environmental and welfare standards”. 

But NGO GMWatch said the changes were contrary to public opinion and suggested the government was “hell-bent on removing protections for health and the environment to allow the GMO industry free rein”.

UK to relax rules on gene-edited crops

It comes as the government had already faced stiff criticism over the past year from farmers for pursuing trade deals that gave countries such as Australia and New Zealand tariff-free access to the UK food market despite differences in farming production standards and environmental protections.

Concerns have also been raised that the deals contradict the UK’s net zero ambitions and could lead to crops and commodities that could be produced domestically instead shipped great distances to be sold in the UK. 

However, according to the John Innes Centre, a British-based “independent, international centre of excellence in plant science, genetics and microbiology”, gene editing could help offset food security and environmental concerns.

“Gene editing is a powerful technique that will play a critical role in helping us address the global challenges of climate change and food security while at the same time ensuring biodiversity.”

Defra’s gene editing announcement came after a year that saw the UK’s food exports to the EU plummet. European Commission data showed a £2.7bn decline when January to November last year was measured against the same months in 2020 – though monthly exports had by late 2021 revived to around the levels seen before the UK and EU signed their Brexit deal. 

We should be stimulating the gene editing debate, not shutting it down

But while the UK’s apparent shift in the direction of genetically modified food could end up making it even more difficult for British produce to be sold in the EU, there are indications that the bloc could also review its related strictures before any impasse emerges.

Last year, around the same time the UK government flagged plans to review the country’s laws around gene editing in crops, the European Commission published a report arguing the bloc’s ban was outdated.

The European Court of Justice had ruled in 2018 that gene editing in crops was subject to an older ban on genetically modified food. But opponents of the ruling said gene editing is not the same as modification, a stance broadly in line with the UK government’s view announced this week that editing “differs from genetic modification, as it allows beneficial traits to be produced without DNA from other species”.

How will Defra’s alternative to CAP subsidies work?