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Plant scientists welcome UK bill to deregulate crop engineering

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The UK will on Wednesday introduce legislation to accelerate the genetic engineering of crops in England — to the delight of plant scientists and dismay of some environmental campaigners and organic farming bodies.

“Outside the EU we are free to follow the science,” said George Eustice, environment secretary. “Precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients, so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilisers.”

The launch of the genetic technology bill was welcomed by crop researchers. Penny Hundleby, senior scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, said the legislation, combined with UK strengths in genetic research, “will move us into an exciting era of affordable, intelligent and precision-based plant breeding”.

Many scientists who opposed leaving the EU because of the harm inflicted on research collaboration with the rest of Europe said they saw the relaxation of genetic technology rules as the only obvious benefit from Brexit.

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“The new bill gives England the opportunity to align its regulations with the rest of the world,” said Hundleby, “and I’m sure that ultimately the EU will follow too.”

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The legislation distinguishes between gene editing, which uses new technology to change an organism’s DNA, and the older genetic modification procedures that transfer genes from one species to another. Unlike EU regulations, which treat both in the same onerous fashion, the rules covering the approval of gene edited crops in England will be streamlined and simplified while those for genetic modification will be maintained.

“Gene editing tools give us the ability to mimic conventional breeding techniques by making genetic changes within a species,” said Gideon Henderson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. An example is the creation of tomatoes rich in vitamin D, announced on Monday by researchers at the John Innes Centre.

But the bill’s opponents disputed the distinction, arguing that it would be impossible in practice for non-genetic breeding to achieve such effects. “The use of terms like ‘gene editing’ and ‘precision breeding’ are nothing more than branding,” said Liz O’Neill, director of the campaign group GM Freeze. “Gene editing is GM with better PR.”

The two sides disagree on public opinion about genetic technologies. Henderson said Defra polling showed that 57 per cent of people thought gene editing of crops was acceptable while it was unacceptable to 32 per cent.

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However the Soil Association, an organic food body, said 85 per cent were opposed to deregulation. “We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues [such as] unhealthy diets and a lack of crop diversity,” said Jo Lewis, the association’s policy director.

The legislation would also permit genetic editing of livestock but this part of the bill would be implemented later than the sections dealing with plants, because of concerns about the welfare implications, Henderson said. “The difference is that with traditional livestock breeding it is possible to produce results that are harmful to animal welfare, such as animals that find it hard to stand up.”

The legislation has already been met with scepticism from opposition parties. Daniel Zeichner, the shadow farming spokesperson, said: “Labour is pro-science and pro-innovation. We want our scientists to succeed and help our producers make more food here in the UK.

“But we will need to be satisfied that the government has set out the clear and strong regulatory framework needed to give the certainty that investors need, the reassurance that the public needs, and the protection that the environment needs.”

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesperson, warned that it could negatively affect farming communities, which had “already received a raw deal from this government”.

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