The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently announced that it is relaxing the rules on gene editing (GE) for crop production in the UK. This is not the same as genetic modification (GM) which a few years ago got labelled as ‘Frankenstein Food’. GM uses DNA material from other species to make changes to the plants. Gene editing manipulates the coding within the same species, in this case a plant. Take wheat for example, that you might want to make more resilient to drought. Rather than introducing new DNA from an external source such as a cactus, you could use gene editing. This involves a group of technologies that make changes within the plant’s own DNA by moving, adding or deleting precise pieces of genetic material. In this case, it could be the gene responsible for the control of water loss in the plant.
Humans have been using various techniques for plant breeding for centuries. The original wheat plants were cultivated in the middle east over 10,000 years ago and were introduced into this country about 5,000 years ago. These original plants were nothing like the modern varieties that are now grown to produce flour, to provide us with all sorts of foods, but notably bread. To start with they were over 1.6 metres tall, nearly twice as high as today’s plants. Farmers would originally keep seed from the plants that seemed to grow well on their land, thereby selecting the best genetic potential. By the mid 1800’s plant breeders began a more formal process of improving the plants. Mostly by selection and cross pollination we have hugely increased the yield, at the same time as reducing the height and improving its resistance to disease and pests. Gene editing will greatly speed up this process and allow our modern day plant breeders to produce plants that are more robust and require less pesticides and artificial fertiliser. Other potential benefits are making plants more tolerant of adverse weather and perhaps providing extra vitamins and minerals in the grain which will benefit consumers. Some examples of how gene editing might improve the food you buy are: non-bruising potatoes, seedless tomatoes, less bitter sprouts, healthy vegetable oils and allergen-free peanut butter. In 1994 a GM tomato variety called Flav Savr, which had been altered to ripen more slowly and last longer on the shelf, became the world’s first genetically modified food to be approved for sale. In the UK it was available as a tomato puree. After good initial sales it was removed from the market after a couple of years, due to growing public resistance to GM technology. The EU and so the UK, until now have had some of the most stringent regulations in the world surrounding the approval of both GM and GE technologies.
At this current point all GM and GE technologies have been classified as the same process by the EU. The government has stated that these potential rule changes, now we have left the EU, could give English scientists an advantage in their research. It must be pointed out that this is a go ahead for scientific trial plots, not wide scale farm crops and it is only for gene editing not genetic modification. I can see possible advantages as a farmer, but at the end of the day you the consumer have to be happy with what we grow. Whilst we have been prohibited by the EU regulations from growing GM and GE crops in this country, their use is widespread across much of the rest of the world. Outside of Europe, genetically modified ingredients have now been widely consumed by millions of human beings for over 20 years. So far there has not been a single, proven case showing an adverse effect. Within Europe, the vast majority of farm livestock who are fed a protein supplement will be eating GM soya. The more food we import and the further we travel, the more likely it is that we are already eating GM and GE food. With our own farming industry being scaled down through current government policy favouring the environment over food production, this will only increase. Rushed trade deals struck with non-EU countries that do not have proper safeguards in terms of food production standards are not going to help UK farmers to compete on a level playing field. I fear this is mostly falling on deaf ears, as political expediency means the government is hell bent on showing us how easy it has been to get new trade deals in the aftermath of Brexit.