Government has launched consultation to change current strict EU rules

Through gene editing, crops could be developed that required fewer pesticides or fertilisers, or with enhanced nutritional properties. Photograph: Alexey Malgavko/Reuters

Gene editing of crops and livestock may soon be permitted in England for the first time under a consultation launched by the government on Thursday.

Ministers said changing the current strict rules, which originate from the EU and make gene editing for crops and livestock almost impossible, would bring widespread benefits to consumers and farmers, including healthier food, environmental improvements and better animal welfare.

But some environmental and animal welfare groups raised concerns that loosening the rules could lead to lower animal welfare, for instance if the technology was used to promote faster growth over animal health, or to enable livestock to be kept in crowded conditions.

Gene editing involves cutting and splicing sections of DNA within a single genome to bring about changes that were previously possible only through lengthy selective breeding of plants and animals. This is a different process from genetic modification, which involves introducing DNA from one species into another, and which will continue to be subject to a near-total ban.

George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

Through gene editing, crops could be developed that require fewer pesticides or fertilisers, or which have enhanced nutritional properties. For instance, tomatoes that can lower blood pressure have recently been licensed for sale in Japan. Animal genes could also be edited in ways that would allow the breeding of livestock that was resistant to key diseases, which would reduce the need for antibiotics and so the likelihood of developing resistant superbugs.

However, Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at the campaigning group Compassion in World Farming, said the ways in which livestock had been bred for profitable traits in the past suggested the development of gene editing would be harmful to animals. He pointed to genetic selection for broiler chickens, whereby the fast growth rates gave rise to leg abnormalities and lameness, and in laying hens, selecting for high egg production caused osteoporosis, leaving the hens vulnerable to bone fractures.

Breeding animals resistant to diseases would only encourage farmers to stock them more intensively, he added, leading to overcrowding and lower animal welfare. “This is pushing us down the industrial farming route,” he warned. “It is entrenching an antiquated system of farming that we would do better to abandon.”

Gareth Morgan, head of farming at the Soil Association, said: “We question the speed with which the government is using Brexit to pursue a deregulatory agenda in this area. It is vital that citizens and farmers who do not wish to eat or grow gene-edited crops or animals are offered adequate protection.”

Prof Gideon Henderson, chief scientist at Defra, said the government had made clear its commitment to upholding animal welfare standards: “The motivation for this is not lowering animal welfare standards – it’s about the benefits.”

Gene editing has been made possible through the development of tools such as Crispr-Cas9, which allows scientists to finely target sections of DNA, to remove or change them, or to turn certain genes on or off. Developed in 2012, Crispr is cheap and has become widely used among scientists.

But in 2018 the European court of justice controversially ruled that gene editing was essentially the same as genetic modification and should be subject to the same tight rules. GM crops are subject to a near-total ban in the EU, though a few have received permits.

Henderson said allowing gene editing in England should not affect trade in agricultural products with the EU, the biggest market for British farmers. “It will have to be taken into consideration in our exports to the EU – there are ways for gene-edited crops to be labelled, so they can be targeted to markets where we can sell,” he said. “It will not impede trade and may enhance it significantly in some cases [with other countries].”

Many scientists welcomed the government consultation, which will run for 10 weeks until 17 March. Huw Jones, professor of translational genomics for plant breeding at Aberystwyth University, said: “We need food and agriculture, but we also need it to stop harming the planet. A combination of better land management and better crops can do that. In its simplest form, gene editing is merely a speedier way to find the genetic variation made by natural processes.”

Mick Watson, professor of bioinformatics and computational biology at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, said: “As well as improving animals’ ability to respond to disease, gene editing could also be used to create fitter, healthier animals with higher standards of animal welfare. [This] could place cutting-edge technology at the heart of UK livestock improvement.”

The National Farmers’ Union also welcomed the consultation, to be set out in detail on Thursday during the online Oxford Farming Conference. Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the NFU, said: “New precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net-zero ambition.”