Gideon Henderson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, believes the time is ripe for a new public debate on biotechnology, the science of manipulating genes in crops and animals.
“The last time we had an extensive public discussion was in the 1990s,” he notes. Then, public outrage at the idea of ‘Frankenfoods’ centred on fears of what might result from newly available techniques that allowed the introduction of genes from one species into a completely different species. Lurid stories of tomatoes altered with fish genes grabbed the headlines.
Those fears were stoked further by boasts, real or rumoured, by companies such as Monsanto of the potential to control the future food chain, putting farmers in their thrall by forcing them to buy expensive seeds and weedkiller, and by the potential for GM crops to contaminate conventional crops or wild plants through cross-pollination.
The result was widespread public revulsion, and the EU moved quickly to place a moratorium on GM crops, which remains in place with only a few exceptions today. Many developing countries imposed similar rules on their farmers, fearing exclusion from the EU market.
In the intervening decades, science has moved on. Gene editing tools that act as “genetic scissors” now allow a degree of precision unthought of in the 1990s, whereby individual genes can be targeted and sections of their DNA manipulated, effectively cutting and pasting as one would with an electronic document. This brings within reach the kind of genetic selection within a species that was previously achieved only through decades of selective breeding.
But while scientists see a clear distinction between gene editing – working within a single species to alter the genetic code, in a way identical to the effects of selective breeding – and genetic modification, whereby genes from different species are mixed in a way that could never happen in nature, the EU’s judges disagreed. The 2018 ruling by the European court of justice effectively stopped the development in Europe of gene-edited crops, subjecting them to the same rules as GM, which many scientists view as a mistake.
Nick Talbot, executive director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said: “Gene editing provides the opportunity to carry out precision plant breeding and thereby harness the extraordinary biodiversity of crop species. Very complex traits that contribute to the yield of crops and their ability to adapt to environmental changes can be better understood and new varieties developed. It is vital that this technology – already recognised by the Nobel prize and of vital importance in biomedical science – is evaluated for use in agriculture in the UK.”
Gene editing can be applied to plants and animals, though its use on humans is controversial. Gene-edited foods would probably be subject to new labelling rules, but exactly how labelling would work is one of the concerns of the consultation. Robin May, chief scientific adviser to the Food Standards Agency, said: “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.”
Allowing gene editing in England would also provide a major boost to the biotech industry and to the UK’s research and development capabilities.
The government is keen to draw a firm distinction between gene editing and genetic modification, but if gene editing is allowed, it will raise the question of whether genetic modification should be re-evaluated.
Henderson believes that debate is for the longer term. “Some would agree [that GM crops are the next logical step], some would disagree,” he said. “One of the reasons for the second half of the consultation is to gather views on GM, and there could be legislation on GMOs in the longer term. But the more immediate issue is about precision editing. We are trying to change gene editing now, before a broader debate about GM.”