A first step towards unlocking the power of gene editing

The Environment Secretary George Eustice has announced changes to the regulation of gene edited crop trials for research purposes.

The John Innes Centre welcomes the proposed changes which will allow field trials of genome edited crops, where the genetic changes could have occurred naturally or as a result of traditional breeding methods, to progress without requiring the same level of regulation that applies to genetically modified organisms.

The Government state this change could be implemented as early as the end of the year.

Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre said, “I’m pleased that the Government is acting to change the regulation of gene edited plants and I welcome today’s announcement. But while DEFRA’s announcement is a step forward for crop trials, it is disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development.

“The benefits of these technologies will only be realised if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers. It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat.”

The Government’s response provides a first step towards the adoption of genome editing, which has great potential to address the challenge of providing sufficient food in the most sustainable way possible.

Genome editing can be used to develop new crop varieties, allowing a precise, targeted mutation in the DNA of an organism. This technology could be used to significantly speed up the crop breeding process and help us to make advances in addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges – climate change, food security and sustainable food production.

Professor Wendy Harwood, Head of the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre said, “Genome editing is the most exciting technology that I have seen in my many years working in crop science. The technology makes it possible to introduce small changes in DNA that lead to the characteristics we need to combat climate change, develop food with better nutritional quality or that are more resistant to diseases.

To fully realise the positive impact of gene editing, it is essential that we can assess genome edited plants in the field. So, I welcome today’s announcement, which offers changes that make this process less of a burden for researchers, while still having the necessary oversight.”

The traditional methods that plant breeders use to introduce traits into crop plants can take between 8 and 15 years. Gene editing offers the opportunity to speed up the breeding process to just a few years, bringing about essential scientific development much sooner at a much lower cost.

As an example, gene editing can be used to make changes to the genetic code of oil seed rape to make their valuable seed pods less prone to pod shatter. Pod shatter causes large losses to the yield, meaning that many seeds are lost to the ground before harvest.

The announcement also indicates a review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly.

Professor Sanders continues, “We need fundamental change to the way we regulate crops produced by genetic technologies if we’re going to make the most of the opportunities that recent advances in genetics have given us.

“We call on the Government to progress the plans to bring these products to market as a matter of urgency. We now have an opportunity to streamline the process and looking ahead we should be regulating crops based on the characteristics they possess rather than how they are produced.”

What is Genome Editing?

Gene, or genome editing is one of the many ways we can use mutations to develop better plants for our food.

Find out more about how we use genetic technologies in plant and microbial science.




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