Ministers have taken the first step towards allowing the use of gene-editing techniques in crop farming in the UK.
Under plans announced on Wednesday, Environment Secretary George Eustice will remove the rules around the research and development of genetically edited plants, paving the way for British farmers to grow “more nutritious and resilient crops”.
The move, first revealed by earlier this month, marks the first major shift away from European Union laws, which has prohibited gene editing for decades amid fears that it is unsafe.
However, some scientists argued that the Government was taking a too cautious approach, adding that the benefits would not be felt for some time.
Gene editing involves replacing genes that govern certain traits – such as water dependency, disease resistance and nutrition – with better-functioning ones from the same species.
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.
Officials insist that gene editing (GE) is different to genetic modification (GM), and that it promotes genetic changes that could have “occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods”.
While the initial research will focus on plants, it is understood that in future the Government is eager to explore the use of GE in livestock.
Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided. It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food-security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Gideon Henderson, chief scientific advisor at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: “These tools enable us to harness the richness of natural variation to build better crops, speeding up a process humans have done through breeding for hundreds of years.
“There are exciting opportunities to improve the environment, and we can also produce new varieties that are healthier to eat, and more resistant to climate change.”