The gene editing debate

CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Cameron Hughes examines the growing interest and potential in gene editing technology and also sets out the Association’s consultation response to government

Humans have selectively bred plant and animal species for millennia to encourage the expression of desired traits. Yet, altering the genetic make-up of plants and animals through alternative means is a concept that has split opinion since the possibility was discovered in the 1970s. However, recent advances in gene editing technology have created a new concept for the public to consider. 

Gene editing technology emerged following the underlying EU legislation, which was written over 30 years ago. Gene editing enables the precise and targeted editing of particular parts of an organism’s genetic sequence to create desired changes. This is very different from other genetic modification technologies, which can involve the translocation of genes between organisms, such as inputting genetic material from one organism into another.

The commercial use of gene editing technology in the UK is limited following an EU decision in 2018, which ruled that gene editing amounted to the creation of a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), a ruling regarded as ‘unscientific’ by the UK Government at the time. Outside the EU, Defra can now consider changing domestic legislation in England to permit the use of gene editing technology in its simplest form - where the genetic alterations could have been achieved through traditional breeding methods- outside the GMO definition. The government is predisposed to legislate to permit the use of gene editing technology, used in this specific way, within the next one to two years.

The technology potential

The UK is a leader in this area of research, with organisations such as the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory particularly involved. Gene editing technology presents an opportunity to speed up the development of new plant and animal varieties and breeds. Gene editing technology can shorten current breeding techniques for new varieties from 10 - 12 years to two to three years. 

Plant breeding will not be unregulated and there is a whole range of existing regulations for the conventional breeding of crops and livestock that will apply, including those covering novel organisms.

Crops have been a major focus of gene editing possibilities, with the potential to increase productivity, environmental sustainability and healthy food. Gene edited traits that have been developed in wheat include mildew resistance, drought tolerance and reduced gluten content. Oilseed rape pods have been developed to be shatter-resistant and rice plants have been edited to increase their tolerance of saline conditions. Tomato plants in Japan have been genetically edited to increase levels of Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. 

Livestock breeding using gene editing can improve their productivity and disease resistance in a range of environments, as seen with the development of immunity to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) and African swine fever.

The CLA's consultation response

The CLA wrote in support of the consultation proposal to permit the use of gene editing technology in this very specific way after extensive member engagement demonstrated strong backing. Members cited the role gene editing could play in tackling issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food security. Members also noted opportunities for the forestry sector through breeding more resilient species, which could have benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and energy production (biomass. It could also potentially help control pests such as grey squirrels. Amongst the member support, however, were concerns regarding domestic and international trade, consumer perception and the coexistence of gene edited and traditionally bred organisms.

Defra concedes that the success of gene edited food produced in the UK will hinge on consumer perception. The CLA says that Defra must take a lead in building understanding and acceptance of gene editing within society. This can be done by considering how the kind of gene editing that is proposed in the consultation can be isolated from the wider range of gene editing and genetic modification techniques.  

The CLA response was submitted on 17th March, and we await Defra’s feedback.