At an Environmental Audit Committee meeting earlier this year, UK Secretary of State for DEFRA, George Eustice, offered his support for gene editing after Brexit, saying that the Government disagrees with the EU stance on the matter.
The meeting, held by video link on 18 June 2020, raised a number of issues including conservation, biodiversity and chemical regulation, but significantly, the matter of selective breeding in the UK was also addressed. This follows on from an open letter sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on science and technology in agriculture to George Eustice urging the Government to introduce an amendment to the Agriculture Bill 2019/2021 to allow selective precision breeding in the UK. Although in its current form, the bill does not contain any amendments that would alter the definition of a GMO (genetically modified organism), there is still time for such recommendations to be included by members of the House of Lords before the bill receives royal assent. It remains to be seen what changes might be introduced to the bill, but it seems that, in future, the UK may move towards a more flexible approach to GMO regulation.
GMOs are organisms (usually plants, animals or micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi) in which the genetic material (DNA or RNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Such modifications can then be replicated and/or transferred to other cells or organisms through the removal of DNA and reinsertion into the same or another organism. The process is known as genetic engineering, and the resulting organism can be referred to as genetically modified, genetically engineered, or transgenic.
The most common types of GMOs are genetically modified crops (such as maize, soybean, and cotton), but other genetically modified products include medicines and vaccines (such as insulin and human growth hormones).
The primary piece of legislation in the UK that applies to the use of GMOs is the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 2014, which places tight restrictions on the use and dissemination of genetically modified plants and animals. In the UK currently, genetic engineering and precision breeding are tightly regulated and subject to significant restrictions derived from EU legislation. Genetically modified (GM) crops are not currently being grown commercially in the UK, but certain GM commodities are imported for use in animal feed and in some food products.
In 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in the Confederation paysanne case that organisms obtained by mutagenesis were GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Release Directive 2001 and were therefore subject to the obligations laid down by that directive. This decision put the EU at odds with countries such as the US, Australia and Japan, and has been criticised by George Eustice as being based on a “legal technicality rather than a science-based decision.”
The ECJ ruling does however go on to clarify that “only organisms obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis which had conventionally been used in a number of applications and had a long safety record were excluded from the scope of [the directive].” Although not expressly confirmed in legislation or otherwise, it is widely accepted that the exemption refers to ‘variation’ or ‘mutation breeding’, which is the process of exposing plants to chemicals or radiation in order to generate random mutations. Once a desirable mutation is achieved, these traits can be bred into other cultivated plants.
The APPG is seeking to change the EU derived definition of a GMO in the Agriculture Bill 2019/2021 for a more flexible term, such as “living modified organism” or similar, which encompasses organisms with a novel combination of genetic material derived through modern biotechnology. It is argued that such a change would re-focus GM regulation on the insertion of viable, heritable, foreign DNA, and would therefore remove around 90% of current gene editing applications from the scope of GM regulation. The suggested amendments to the bill would also provide new powers for ministers to make changes to the UK Environmental Protection Act 1990 and, APPG argues, are crucial in order to boost genetic innovation after Brexit.
The move would give UK scientists, farmers, plant and animal breeders the same access to new gene editing technologies as countries outside the EU, and, it is argued, could lead to vital innovations in the response to climate change, food security and sustainable development. MPs say the techniques could present the UK with opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency and more durable pest and disease resistance. The British Society of Plant Breeders has openly supported the APPG’s recommendations.
Eustice highlighted that “the UK disagreed with the judgment of the European Court of Justice on this, in that we think that gene editing techniques such as CRISPR and other similar ones are really a more targeted form of conventional plant breeding in that it is cisgenesis.” Cisgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with a natural gene from a crossable, compatible plant, and involves only genes from the plant itself or from a close relative, which could also be transferred by traditional breeding techniques.
Eustice went on to say that “gene editing is an area we ought to be considering because if we want to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides, getting that improved genetic resistance to certain fungal diseases in particular will be quite important. Some of these techniques are really just an extension of conventional plant breeding.” However, Eustice did qualify this statement with: “We would not propose changing at all the regulatory framework on GMOs.”
This article has been co-written with Georgina Wade, a trainee solicitor in the commercial, IP and IT team.