As a member of the European Union, the UK was a bastion of anti-GMO opposition. After Brexit, however, Britain is changing its outlook for the better. After more than a year of intense public debate, the country’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently announced less restrictive rules that will help the UK biotech industry develop genetically modified crops designed to boost sustainable agriculture:
The rule changes, made possible by the UK’s departure from the EU, will mean that scientists across England can more easily undertake plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies such as gene editing.
The rules will apply to plants where gene editing is used to create new varieties similar to those that could have been produced more slowly by traditional breeding processes and will open research opportunities to grow crops that are more nutritious and require fewer pesticides.
This is a huge step in the right direction for a country that has denied farmers the benefits of plant biotechnology for decades. Conspicuously missing from DEFRA’s announcement, however, was any reference to transgenic crops, the badly maligned “GMOs” we all know.  While GM technology could benefit UK farmers and consumers, as it does in dozens of other countries, regulators remain reluctant to take on the politically charged fight that would precede reform of UK GMO regulations, At least for the moment.
In the spirit of accelerating UK acceptance of all plant biotechnology, I recently partnered with the London-based Adam Smith Institute to produce a new report called Splice of Life: The case for GMOs and gene edition. In it, I review over two decades of research documenting the benefits of growing and consuming GMOs. The main takeaways are:
- GMOs save global consumers up to $24 billion a year, while the UK farming industry has lost £1.7 billion due to their ban on GMOs since 1996.
- GMOs have led to an 8.6% decrease in global pesticide use, which translates to approximately 800 million kilograms less insecticides and herbicides, or a 19% reduction in the environmental impact of GMOs. use of pesticides since 1996.
- Between 1996 and 2018, GMOs are responsible for 34.2 million kilograms less carbon dioxide.
- GMOs are safe for human consumption and help promote sustainable agriculture. More than 2,000 studies have confirmed that approved GMO crops pose no greater threat to human health or the environment than plants produced by other breeding methods.
- There is an almost universal ban on genetic engineering throughout the European Union based on the “precautionary principle”. Hypocritically, the EU still imports around 30 million metric tons of soy and soy flour per year, 90-95% of which is GMO.
- In his first speech as UK Prime Minister in 2019, Boris Johnson promised to “liberate Britain’s extraordinary biosciences sector from anti-gene modification rules”.
How was the UK able to liberate its biotechnology industry in this way? I argue that the ideal regulatory framework is a case-by-case risk assessment that evaluates each new organism on the harm it may cause to humans and the environment, regardless of the breeding method that produced it. . The characteristics of the organism and the intended use would determine the degree of control applied by regulators.
Matt Ridley, legendary science writer and member of the UK House of Lords, had this to say about Splice of Life:
 For the record, “GMO” is an absurd term that no scientist uses in a professional context. Almost all of the food crops we eat were the products of traditional plant breeding, which “genetically modified” them in all sorts of ways. Transgenic plants are not unique in this regard.
“The government’s slow adoption of genetic engineering is disappointing. This technology, in which Britain could be the world leader, offers immense benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment. Yet, as this important new report from the Adam Smith Institute points out, gene editing will be severely hampered and GMOs will be left behind. Scientific evidence, not militant superstition, should be at the center of policy-making.