A new law will allow the planting and creation of crops and animals in England that were made using gene-editing techniques – but this won’t apply to the rest of the UK yet. The move unshackles researchers and companies from onerous EU regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which has so far stymied advanced breeding tools in European agriculture.

The change in the law will only apply to England and will permit precise changes or deletions to DNA sequences, introducing traits using Crispr, for instance. The law removes most Crispr gene editing from burdensome regulations that still apply to GMOs.

‘To qualify as a precision-bred organism, or a PBO, it has to be something that could have been achieved using traditional breeding methods,’ says Wendy Harwood, who heads up the crop transformation group at John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. The law took into account a consultation launched in 2021.

‘We’re all very excited about this in the scientific community,’ says Johnathan Napier, a plant scientist at Rothamsted Research in the UK. ‘There’s lots of opportunities to bring new products to market.’ It is quicker and easier than traditional breeding, a notoriously slow process. The official announcement highlighted its potential to improve UK food security, reduce pesticide use and boost the climate resilience of crops.

Crispr crops

The first gene-edited crop grown in England could be a wheat strain that has less asparagine. During cooking, this amino acid can convert to acrylamide, a potential carcinogen that food processors and regulators are trying to cut. Positive results for the first field trial were announced in February by researchers at Rothamsted. However, it is still likely to be at least five years before this wheat is being grown by farmers. A tomato plant edited to accumulate the provitamin D3 in its fruit, developed by the UK’s John Innes Centre, is also close to market. ‘I don’t know what will be first, but I’d love it to be something that has a real consumer benefit,’ says Harwood.

Crispr is a revolutionary technique that allows for easier deletions or insertions in an organism’s DNA – the law allows for other precision breeding techniques and future advances too. ‘This means we can bring our research material into field trials far more easily and without the huge costs that were involved before,’ Harwood says.

The move could breathe life into UK agricultural science. Biotechnology firms departed Europe after onerous GMO regulations were introduced, with just one crop variety licensed in the EU – Bt maize in 1998. BASF reloated its plant science division from Germany to the US in 2012, for example. A 2018 European ruling that meant gene-edited organisms were counted as GMOs has added to the woes of biotechnology companies in the EU.

There is hope that the UK law could now stimulate the growth of biotech start-ups. ‘Maybe some of the big plant biotech companies might return to the UK,’ says Napier. The EU’s regulatory regime currently puts it out of step with the US, Canada, South American countries, as well as Australia, China and Japan.

Big issues are at stake, say supporters of advanced breeding techniques. ‘We need to feed a growing population in a world where resources such as land and water are becoming very limited,’ says Christine Foyer, a plant scientist at the University of Birmingham, UK. ‘Gains through traditional breeding have largely plateaued in the last five to 10 years.’ She argues that gene-editing tools are essential if we are to adequately boost yields of our major crops.

Most staple crops did not evolve in the warmer regions of the world and will struggle with rising temperatures. Wheat flowering and grain maturation is especially sensitive to heat. ‘Even maize to some extent is sensitive to temperature increases,’ Foyer warns.

Animal edits

The law has relevance for animals too. In 2021, Japan approved two gene-edited fish for aquaculture that can grow larger than their unedited counterparts, and Crispr fish will be permitted in England under the new regime. ‘This brings the UK to the same level as some of the bigger competitors in this space globally,’ says Bruce Whitelaw, an animal biotechnologist and director of the Roslin Institute, UK.

Scientists at Roslin have already edited pigs to disable a cell receptor that a deadly virus uses to cause porcine reproductive respiratory syndrome. ‘These animals are resistant to the virus,’ says Whitelaw, who welcomes new opportunities the law brings. Other applications include tweaking chicken DNA so only females are produced for egg-laying, avoiding the slaughter of millions of male chicks.

While the legislation only applies to England, the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have indicated that they are unlikely to follow suit, at least in the short term. Northern Ireland’s position within the EU’s single market for goods makes it unlikely that it can introduce similar legislation. In theory there should be internal barriers within the UK to the movement of gene-edited foodstuffs, but it remains to be seen how this will work.

Defra will have to interpret where to draw the law on precision organisms, but it is likely that moving genes from one species to another will remain under the stringent rules for GMOs. ‘If there’s any foreign DNA present in a plant, then it would probably be classified as a GMO,’ says Napier. ‘Part of me hopes that this liberalisation around gene editing is just the first step in the UK in changing the regulations around genetic modifications.’

A European Commission study in 2021 concluded that gene editing could contribute to sustainable agriculture. But the EU is weighed down by its rules on GMOs. ‘This was a legal decision, but the same law could be interpreted to mean different things depending on the translation,’ says plant scientist Stefan Jansson at Umeå University in Sweden.

The commission will struggle to propose consensus legislation to permit gene editing. Countries such as Austria, Greece, Poland and Hungary are against change, while others such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic are far more supportive. ‘The commission has said that the law is not fit for purpose, but are struggling to find a solution,’ says Jansson. A proposal is expected later this year. ‘The EU is likely to end up with something similar to our approach,’ says Harwood, ‘but will take longer to get there.’