Supermarket shoppers will be able to buy food produced using genetically-edited ingredients from as early as next year, the Environment Secretary has predicted.
The Government is due to present a ground-breaking bill next week that will pave the way for crops to be produced using precision genetic editing techniques that will make them naturally more resilient and require less pesticides.
Speaking exclusively to i, George Eustice said the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will be passed into law this year, potentially enabling the first GE foods to be available by 2023.
Mr Eustice said some produce which is already available in other parts of the world, could be put forward for assessment for market authorisation in England soon after the legislation is passed. While the regulations will be limited to England, the produce is likely to be available UK-wide.
“Once this bill gets Royal Assent, which will probably be during the course of this year, we will then have a regime that enables us to issue a marketing authorisation for any gene edited seeds that come out of that process.
He added: “There’ll probably be some of these crops that are already available and bred in other parts of the world. So it’s possible that we could have some of these crops that have benefited from gene-edited technologies ready to be deployed during the course of next year.”
In the US and Canada, a non-browning mushroom was rapidly available on the market after scientists found a natural way to tweak its genetic code to turn off the enzyme that turns the mushroom brown. It has boosted shelf life and dramatically reduced food waste.
Genetically edited soybean, which can be used to produce healthier and longer lasting oil, has been available in the US since 2019, while in 2020 Japan gave the green light to a tomato that has higher levels of a compound that helps lower blood pressure.
The UK’s move will mark the biggest divergence by the UK away from existing European laws since leaving the EU, which has banned the technique for years although it is beginning to look into lifting the veto.
Gene editing involves the technique of replacing or tweaking genes that govern certain traits, such as water dependency, disease resistance and nutrition with better-functioning ones from the same species.
Experts insist it simply accelerates natural breeding techniques, rather than introducing genes from different organisms entirely to create something new, such as with genetic modification, which is banned.
It has the potential to make crops much more nutritious and resistant to storms or pests – and to considerably boost the resilience and yields of livestock, advocates say.
Such products could be available in the UK from next year, if they receive market approval, but Mr Eustice said it would be closer to three to five years that “significant numbers” of crops developed in the UK from seed will come through to market.
The Cabinet minister said it would be unlikely that produce developed using genetic editing techniques would be labelled as such, highlighting that around a third of all animal feed used in the EU is genetically edited without the need for labelling.
Mr Eustice said there are plans to introduce further legislation in the future to allow gene-editing to be used in livestock, but only after consumer confidence has grown.
Such a move could mean farmers being able to breed “polled cattle”, which are born naturally without horns, avoiding the need to de-horn the animals, which Mr Eustice said is a horrible, unpleasant thing to do.
“There’s potential that you could use gene editing to deal with some other issues around welfare, particularly on poultry, for instance,” he said.
“But the reason I’ve chosen at this stage to start with crops is I am cognisant of consumer opinion and consumer confidence on these matters, and I think there are more complex ethical issues around the use of these sorts of breeding techniques when it comes to animals that I think people are just a bit more nervous about.”