Gene-editing bill set for third reading in parliament

A bill that could eventually pave the way for gene-edited crops to be grown and sold in England is set for its third reading in parliament.

The Westminster government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill seeks to modify existing UK regulation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which is currently derived from EU legislation.

The third reading of the bill is scheduled in parliament for Monday 31 October – the final chance for MPs to pass or reject the whole bill. It is expected to be introduced in the House of Lords the following day.  

See also: Public wants wider public debate on gene editing in livestock

If passed, the bill would enable the development and marketing of precision-bred plants and animals using gene-editing techniques such as Crispr-Cas9 in ways that could have occurred naturally or been produced by traditional breeding.

The legislation would set different rules from the EU and devolved nations, including Scotland and Wales, and allow gene-edited crops to be grown in England. However, foods created from genetic modification, which produces organisms containing additional genes, would remain banned. 

Defra says the use of gene-editing technology could unlock opportunities to develop higher yielding crops that are more resilient against disease and the effects of climate change, such as drought and flooding, and less reliant on pesticides.  

‘Powerful tool’ – Defra

Gideon Henderson, Defra’s chief scientific adviser, said: “The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes.

“Precision breeding is a powerful and important tool to help us tackle the challenges of biodiversity and climate change, while feeding a still growing global population”.

Professor Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research, based in Hertfordshire, said the bill would pave the way for gene-editing technology to be used in crop improvement rather than just research.

“We are already behind much of the world in the application of precision-breeding techniques and we are keen to see the bill become law as soon as possible,” he added. 

The government has promised a “step-by-step approach” to gene editing, enabling the use of precision-breeding technologies with plants first, followed by animals later.   

Farm minister Mark Spencer said: “British scientists are leading the world in precision breeding and this bill will put Britain at the forefront of agri-research and innovation – opening the door for more investment and continuing our work to provide farmers with the tools they need to innovate and use new, smart technologies.”

Bill criticism

However, campaign group Beyond GM warned that the bill is “not for food and farming, but for the biotech industry”, adding that it will have “profound implications for the environment and the food we eat”.

Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM, said: “Innovation in agriculture, including genetic engineering, may have a role in responding to challenges such as feeding a growing world population, adapting to climate change and protecting natural resources.

“But based on what the government has put forward, it is difficult to see how these poorly conceived proposals for regulatory reform will lead to either effective regulation or the kind of food-, farmer, citizen and environment-focused, socially responsible innovation that we so desperately need in the 21st century.”

Westminster government sets out four aims of the bill

1. Remove plants and animals produced through precision-breeding technologies from regulatory requirements applicable to the environmental release and marketing of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  

2. Introduce two notification systems – one for precision-bred organisms used for research purposes and the other for marketing purposes. The information collected will be published on a public register on gov.UK.  

3. Establish a proportionate regulatory system for precision-bred animals to ensure animal welfare is safeguarded. We will not be introducing changes to the regulations for animals until this system is in place.  

4. Establish a new science-based authorisation process for food and feed products, developed using precision-bred plants and animals.  

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