Freedom to tinker: The UK is liberalizing rules around gene-edited crops

On 29 September, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs announced that by the end of 2021, researchers planning to conduct field trials of gene-edited plants will no longer be required to submit lengthy and expensive risk assessments. Many scientists believe that the change will bolster the nation’s capabilities in food-security research amid rapid environmental change.

"Modern gene-editing techniques – such as CRISPR/Cas9 – allow for much more precise alterations to DNA, reducing some of the concerns that surrounded genetic engineering," says Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at the Rothamsted Research Centre.  Policy-makers have not kept pace, researchers argue.

Halford and many other crop scientists believe that gene-editing is merely an acceleration of the way plants naturally breed – a process of gradual genetic change that humans have long taken advantage of through selective breeding. "A lot of the edits that we’re making might take place during natural reproduction," he says. "DNA mutations occur all the time – without them, you don’t get evolution."

Cathie Martin, professor at the John Innes Research Centre, agrees. "A lot of the gene-edited changes could occur naturally, but it would take a lot of time and effort to screen them, identify them, and integrate them into crops," she says. "With gene editing, you’re accelerating that process, saving huge amounts of time, effort and money."

Halford’s team is working on gene-editing certain crops to ensure that they produce less of the carcinogenic substance acrylamide, which can form during cooking. They have used the CRISPR/Cas9 system to knock out some of the genes involved in acrylamide production. Similarly, Martin’s team is working to increase the amount of ascorbate, a precursor for vitamin C, by gene editing tomatoes. Such techniques, if commercialized, could help to solve nutritional issues and improve food security.

‘Researchers and developers need to be confident that what they’re working on could have potential application and commercialization. There needs to be an enabling regulatory framework for research to get off the ground,’ adds Halford.

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