When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister of the UK in 2019, he pledged to ‘free the extraordinary UK bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules’. The country had to comply with strict EU biotech regulations until it finalized its divorce from the European Union in January. Next month, the government is widely expected to follow through on Johnson’s promise by making it easier to test and market certain genetically engineered crops and livestock.
The decision, which will be announced on June 17, applies to plants and animals whose genes have been edited with precision techniques such as CRISPR. It will put the UK on par with several countries, including the US, and UK biotechnologists say it will speed up research and boost investment.
“Although I have to swallow hard and say it with my teeth, Brexit at least has a dividend,” says Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a public crop research center. Tina Barsby, CEO of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, says the change could be “the most important policy breakthrough in plant breeding in more than two decades.”
Traditional genetic engineering gives organisms new traits by inserting “transgenes” from other species. In contrast, gene editing changes a species’ own genes without permanently adding new genetic material. Proponents argue that gene editing is just an acceleration of classical breeding techniques, which select traits enhanced by mutations (often created by chemicals or radiation). “We have no reason to believe that they will be inherently riskier than traditionally bred crops,” says Angela Karp, director of Rothamsted Research, a non-profit agricultural research center in the UK.
As part of the UK policy shift, gene-modified plants and animals may not need detailed applications and reviews before field trials and commercial approval. In Europe, on the other hand, any genetically modified organism (GMO) marketed, regardless of how it was created, undergoes a lengthy risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and must be approved. by a majority of member countries before it can be planted. “It means everything stops,” says Wendy Harwood, head of crop transformation at the John Innes Center, a UK public research organization. In 2018, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed that organisms modified by the gene require the same regulatory control as other GMOs.
Only a few genetically modified crops have been marketed anywhere. One example is a tomato called Sicilian Rouge High GABA which has more than one amino acid believed to promote relaxation, approved for sale in Japan last year. Only two genetically modified crops have been field tested in the UK. One, in 2018, evaluated the performance of camelina, a relative of mustard, designed to produce a product similar to olive oil. And in a recent trial, researchers tested edited broccoli for better nutrition.
Others are in preparation. Rothamsted Research this month applied for a permit to field test wheat modified to contain less asparagine, an amino acid that becomes the carcinogenic acrylamide when baked. The Roslin Institute, a University of Edinburgh research center that works with livestock, has created pigs resistant to a virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which costs pastoralists $ 2.6 billion a year of American and European pigs. Genus PLC markets pigs in several countries.
The government’s decision on gene editing, which will come from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), will not apply outside England. Other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – regulate GMOs themselves and are skeptical of their value. And opponents of GMO liberalization say Defra is moving too fast. They fear, for example, that animals and crops modified to resist disease will promote intensive farming practices that are harmful to the environment.
Addressing these concerns is important, says Colin Campbell, director of the James Hutton Institute, a public research center that focuses on the sustainable management of natural resources. Biotechnologists “need a license from the company to operate,” he says. “Marketing can follow when you’ve gained the trust.”
Promoters must also have realistic expectations for gene editing, says Johnathan Napier, plant biotechnologist at Rothamsted Research. Removing a few genes can improve disease resistance or suppress an allergen. But more complicated traits fueled by many genes, such as drought tolerance, will be much more difficult to conceive without transgenic modifications, warns Napier. “It’s really not a quick fix,” he says. But controls on transgenic GMOs could also one day be relaxed; Defra solicited public comment on the need for reform.
Even the European Union is rethinking its approach to gene editing. An April report from the European Commission believes this could make agriculture more sustainable and found “strong indications” that EU law is inappropriate to regulate it. Dirk Inzé, molecular biologist at the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology, a Belgian research center, is encouraged. But he predicts that any reform would run into problems with the European Parliament, where anti-GMO sentiment is still strong. “The debate will be very fierce,” said Inzé.