Gene-edited super-crops set for UK approval in Brexit red-tape bonfire

Kale

The UK is set to cut red tape on gene-edited crops in a post-Brexit move that could see products like less-bitter kale hit British supermarket shelves in the future.

The Government will soon announce the results of a consultation expected to give the green light for gene-edited agriculture.

The technology is tightly regulated in the same way as genetically modified food as a result of a 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice.

The move could also potentially open the British market to products developed overseas, particularly in the US where looser regulation has boosted research investment.

Among the products in development in the US are a leafy green like kale that has been modified to be less bitter, to make it taste more like lettuce and therefore more palatable, to encourage healthy eating.

Others include cherries without stones and blackberries without thorns and seeds.

Helping crops survive climate change

“If you want children to have healthy snacks, cherries are great, but the stones are a health hazard,” said Professor Wendy Harwood of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which is researching GE crops.

Backers of GE technology, which involves splicing a gene and extracting or inserting new DNA, say they could help reduce food scarcity and make crops more resilient to climate change.

It differs from genetic modification because it does not involve inputting DNA from a different species, and can mimic processes that have been used in farming for centuries.

In the UK, research has focused on making crops more resilient and efficient, and increasing their nutritional and health benefits.

A field trial of wheat that has been gene-edited to remove the amino acid that is linked to carcinogens when bread is toasted, was given the green light last month.

Professor Johnathan Napier, the science director of the Rothamsted centre in Hertfordshire which is conducting the wheat trials, said the current regulations were “not fit for purpose”.

GE products can help with changing climate and growing demand on land, but it’s not going to be a magic solution,” he said.

“We’re really up against it with climate change and population growth so we’ve got to make sure we are using every tool we have.”

Farmers hope technology will reduce losses

The National Farmers Union has welcomed the move to open the market to GE products, which it hopes will help farmers to reduce losses to adverse weather, pests or disease.

But some environmental and consumer groups say opening up the regulation could have unintended consequences and have called for clear labelling on GE products.

Backers of GE technology fear labelling could kill the industry, by creating extra bureaucracy and consumer wariness.

“Consumer safety and confidence is the absolute cornerstone,” Mr Napier said.

The consultation could also lead to gene-editing within livestock, which scientists say can be used to create “super sires” that produce elite offspring that could improve food production and help save endangered species. It could also be used to help reduce methane emissions from cattle.

The EU has also committed to reasesseing its own regulation on GE crops to align with the UK, which could limit the impact on British exports.

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