Peers are preparing plans to legalise the gene-editing of crops in England, a move that scientists say would offer the nation a chance to develop and grow hardier, more nutritious varieties.
The change will be proposed when the current Agriculture Bill reaches its committee stages in the House of Lords next month, and is supported by a wide number of peers who believe such a move is long overdue. At present, the practice is highly restricted by EU regulations.
The plan would involve introducing an amendment to the bill to give the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs the power to make changes to the Environmental Protection Act, alterations that would no longer restrict gene-editing in England. The rest of the UK would need separate legislation.
Gene-editing of plants and animals is controlled by the same strict European laws that govern genetically modified (GM) organisms. However, scientists say gene-editing is cheaper, faster, simpler, safer and more precise than GM technology.
As they point out, GM technology involves the transfer of entire genes or groups of genes from one species to another while the more recently developed techniques of gene-editing merely involve making slight changes to existing genes in a plant or animal and are considered to be just as safe as traditional plant breeding techniques.
“Early benefits for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those that we have now,” said plant scientist Professor David Baulcombe of Cambridge University.
This enthusiasm is also shared by peers who have argued that the wide use of gene editing of crops could give the nation a key advantage in agriculture and in the food industry after Brexit.