Opinion: We're wasting our big Brexit gene-editing opportunity

The Government wants to unleash innovation. If it were to be presented with a magic wand that could by 2040 feed millions more people, avoid tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and improve biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of hectares, while benefiting the economy and reducing the footprint of farming, it would surely grab it.

That is exactly what Crispr and other gene editing technologies promise for agriculture, based on what they are doing elsewhere. Yet the Government’s first moves towards allowing gene editing, now that we are free from the EU’s stifling restrictions on it, while welcome, are frustratingly hesitant.

Crispr will be encouraged, according to plans released last month, but only at first in plants and not animals. This is disappointing because, in a world first, a British company, Genus, has funded research at a British research institute, Roslin, near Edinburgh, to remove a tiny segment of DNA from the genome of pigs and thus render them almost wholly resistant to a very nasty disease called porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). The pigs are completely healthy in every other way.

Because nothing is added to the pig genome during this process there is not even the theoretical possibility of some unintended consequence, as there is with cross breeding or (in the case of plants) the deliberate mutation of genes at random with gamma rays. Genus will soon have approval to market these pigs in Mexico, China and America, but not here. British pigs and British pork consumers will be at an economic and medical disadvantage. The rest of the world is amazed.

Absurdly, the only remaining smidgen of opposition to this innovation, from green extremists, is that somehow if pigs are less likely to catch disease then farmers will treat them less well. No, I can’t follow the logic either. Yet it looks like somebody got to the Government and persuaded it to postpone a decision on animals.

Where crops are concerned, countries that are encouraging new breeding techniques, including Crispr and genetic modification, are experiencing increased productivity and competitiveness, increased farm incomes, increased biodiversity on farms, decreased pesticide use, decreased need for land for farming (which spares land for nature), widespread acceptance of the products and a plethora of small firms and universities collaborating on projects to improve the nutritional quality of niche crops. Argentina, for example, has seen a rash of small new start-ups in gene editing.

Europe – to which we have remained partly in thrall on this issue despite Brexit – has missed out on all this bounty, its farming more dependent on chemicals, subsidies, commodity crops and big business than it would otherwise be.

The worries that panicked governments 20 years ago into raising high barriers against biotechnology have proved to be wholly without foundation. Any risks to human health and the environment from biotech have been handsomely outweighed by benefits. But instead of learning the lesson that you should stand up to eco-bullies, I fear today’s politicians have chosen to be ultra-cautious. This only allows the irrational extremists more time to organise (remember shale gas) and puts more barriers to entry in the way of small business and niche products.

It remains the absurd truth that if you were to generate a new blight-resistant potato by bombarding its genes with gamma rays, a technology that Greenpeace and its ilk have never campaigned against merely because it was invented 70 years ago, you are much more lightly regulated as you try to get it to market than if you generate an identical potato by snipping out or inserting a tiny piece of DNA with Crispr. Why? What matters is whether the potato is safe.

Indeed, it is not too fanciful to suggest that the way we have regulated biotechnology has actually increased risks. Suppose somebody did propose a genuinely dangerous experiment – taking genes from anthrax bacteria and putting them in wheat, say. They would encounter hurdles no higher than if they wanted to make a blight-resistant potato by snipping out a segment of DNA. That’s like making somebody get an HGV licence before playing in dodgem cars. After all, high-stakes “gain of function” experiments on viruses with artificially increased infectivity and virulence are, we now know, happening routinely in some laboratories in China and America. Yet we worry about potatoes.

Britain pioneered a lot of plant and animal science, it has a first-class plant-variety licensing system with a perfect record of safety and it led the way in developing much plant and animal biotechnology, but it has since had to watch the rest of the world commercialise the work and reap the rewards. What it lacks is not good research experiments, but a clear path to rapid and proportionate approval of new crop and animal varieties developed with the latest techniques so as to kick-start some crucial commercial projects that could have immensely beneficial effects.

About the Author: Matt Ridley is a journalist for the Telegraph

First published in the Telegraph