Ministers plan to ease regulations on researching gene-edited crops in England by the end of 2021 as part of a post-Brexit plan to liberalise rules covering the manipulation of genes in agriculture.
George Eustice, environment secretary, will on Wednesday announce the move, which will pave the way for commercial production of crops created using gene editing, a form of genetic engineering that does not involve introducing DNA from other species.
It follows a consultation on departing from EU rules, which treat gene editing similarly to other genetic modification and impose tough restrictions on its use. The EU in April announced its own consultation on gene editing, however.
“Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided,” Eustice said. “It is a tool that could help us . . . to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face — around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”
The government plans to ease regulations on crop research by the end of the year using a statutory instrument. This will remove a long and costly licensing process, instead just requiring researchers to notify the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of each field trial.
That will be followed by primary legislation to adjust the definition of genetic modification to exclude gene editing, a process that the government argues “creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes”.
Ministers will also review England’s approach to genetically modified organisms more broadly “in the longer term”.
The changes come despite a campaign against gene editing by environmental groups, which argue it should be treated the same as genetic modification and carries unknown risks.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, a campaign group that includes Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, said: “Genetic engineering — whatever you choose to call it — needs to be properly regulated.
“The UK government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all, but our food, our farms and the natural environment deserve better.”
She added: “The consultation submissions that GM Freeze has seen raised a wide range of concerns about Defra’s proposals for dismantling GM safeguards, but this announcement suggests the minister isn’t listening.”
Officials hope the changes will pave the way for new solutions to pests and diseases such as virus yellows, which attacks sugar beet and has worsened in the UK since a ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids. These attack aphids that spread the disease, but also pose a risk to bees.
But GM Freeze said many gene-edited crops “are designed to tolerate repeated spraying with a particular weed killer”, and may thus increase pesticide use. They are also “patented so farmers are not in control”, the group said.
Responses by individual people to the consultation were dominated by the campaign against changing the rules, with 87 per cent of individuals arguing the risks would outweigh the benefits. A majority of academic and public sector groups favoured the change, however, they said.
Gene-edited crops will still be subject to rules such as those governing the introduction of “novel foods” which require pre-market authorisation. Ministers also hope to liberalise rules on gene editing of livestock, though the initial change applying to field trials will not affect animals, which undergo experiments in laboratories.