Rule changes to make it easier to research and develop “gene edited” food crops such as sugar beet have been announced by the Government.
Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animal much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding which has been used for centuries to create stronger, healthier crops and livestock.
The Government said gene editing of plants could help breed crops that are more nutritious or resistant to pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical pesticides that harm wildlife, and boosting yields.
It could see the development of crops such as sugar beet that are resistant to viruses that hit yields without the use of pesticides, or foods from which chemical compounds that are harmful to human health have been removed.
The rule changes will allow field trials in England of gene edited crops without having to go through a licensing process that takes a couple of months and costs researchers £5,000 to £10,000, although scientists will still have to inform the Environment Department (Defra) of their work.
The move is the first stage of an approach that could see gene edited foods sold on UK supermarket shelves in the future.
It comes despite 87% of individual responses to a Government consultation raising concerns that the risk of gene editing was greater than for traditional breeding and it should continue to be regulated as genetically modified (GM) organisms.
However responses by academic institutes and public bodies reflected a view there was no greater risk.
Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and GM, in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.
But following an EU ruling in 2018, it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms, a situation which Environment Secretary George Eustice said could be changed now the UK has left the bloc.
Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided.
“It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.
“Outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.
“We will be working closely with farming and environmental groups to ensure that the right rules are in place.”
Following the rule change on field trials, the next step planned is primary legislation to change the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude gene edited crops or livestock that could have been created – more slowly – by traditional breeding methods.
That would allow commercial marketing of gene edited products without requiring GM regulation, although they would still be subject to other rules about selling foods.
As it is a devolved issue, the changes only apply to England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland free to take a different approach, and discussions will be needed between governments before primary legislation is brought forward, officials said.
The Government is also planning a broader review of GM regulation in the longer term.
It said foods will only be permitted to be marketed if it is judged they do not present a risk to health, do not mislead consumers and do not have lower nutritional value than non-genetically modified counterparts.
It could take several years for gene edited products to arrive on supermarket shelves, and decisions would have to be made about how they would be labelled.
Prof Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, said: “There are significant benefits to changing the way we regulate genetic technologies, to make sure the system is as up to date as possible and properly takes into account new technologies and scientific discoveries.
“We support giving consumers choice and recognise the potential benefits that gene edited plants and animals may bring to the food system.”
Any gene edited products traded with the EU would have to undergo full GM approval – although the bloc is also looking at its approach to gene editing – but could be sold in countries where gene editing is permitted.
Sustainable food and farming body The Soil Association warned that gene edited crops could be patented for corporate interests and called for better regulation of genetic research and more support for farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming methods.
Joanna Lewis, Soil Association director of policy and strategy said: “Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place, including a lack of crop diversity, the decline in beneficial insects, and animal overcrowding.
“We must increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.”
Liz O’Neill, director of umbrella group GM Freeze said: “Genetic engineering, whatever you choose to call it, needs to be properly regulated.
“The UK Government wants to swap the safety net of proper public protections for a high-tech free-for-all but our food, our farms and the natural environment deserve better.”
She accused the Environment Secretary of not listening to the concerns people raised in the submissions to the consultation.
But Prof Angela Karp, director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research said: “We very much welcome this important announcement that regulation of gene edited crops for research and development will now be approached in an appropriate, evidence-based manner.
“Gene editing gives us a powerful new tool to accelerate the generation of plant varieties that can potentially be more nutritious, more resilient against climate change and grown with a reduced environmental impact.”
Dr Penny Hundleby, senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, said: “This is a cautious step in the right direction, enabling scientists and plant breeders to evaluate new traits under field conditions in the UK.
“However, it falls short in allowing this technology to be used to improve crops for the benefit of the environment and consumers.
“For scientists this announcement means that we can continue to do what we have been doing with less paperwork and reduced costs for research.”