In our earlier article, [“Gene editing – UK government announces post-Brexit consultation”], we set out the UK government’s plans to consult on the regulations surrounding the gene-editing of crops and livestock and other genetic technologies.
That consultation has now closed.
On 29 September 2021, the UK Government published the outcome of the consultation. A copy of the full outcome can be accessed here.
In the consultation outcome, the UK government unveiled new plans to reform regulation in this area in England; set to unlock new opportunities for farmers and others in the agri-innovation and agri-tech industries in the coming years.
The UK government recognised that gene-editing and other genetic technologies “have great potential and can enable our farmers to grow plants that are stronger, more nutritious, more resilient to climate change and stresses, and less reliant on pesticides or fertilisers“. It also highlighted the potential benefits to key policy objectives; such as helping address food security and public health issues. Genetic technologies were also recognised as having the potential to support the government’s commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan to protect the environment and help meet the government’s ambitions on Net Zero and “climate adaptation”.
Initial plans set out by the government focus mainly on revising the approach to how the UK governs the use of organisms developed using genetic technologies (such as gene editing) where the end product could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.
The current plans revealed follow a “two-step approach”.
Despite the proposed changes to the regulatory framework surrounding gene-editing and other genetic technologies, it is intended that the existing novel foods and animal feed regulatory frameworks shall remain in place.
The government intends to adopt a “science-based approach” to regulation.
The plans set out by the government mark a significant shift in the regulatory position from the current position which is founded in EU law. It is nevertheless in line with developments internationally and perhaps even the attitude in the EU where a review was undertaken by the EU commission in April 2021 concluded that the current regulation of gene-edited organisms is not fit for purpose.
Whilst the government has unveiled what might seem like ground-breaking plans for reform, as discussed in our previous article, there remains a degree of caution and scepticism around the idea of deregulation in this area.
In the consultation outcome, the government seeks to address this by emphasising that it remains committed to the “very highest standards of environmental and food safety in the UK“. There is no intention to weaken the strong food safety standards that the UK harnesses. The government also seeks to provide reassurance that the marketing of gene-edited foods will only be permitted under strict conditions. It waits to be seen how this will play out in practice.
In any event, it is not expected that we will see gene-edited products arising from any change in UK regulation appearing on the shelves at our local Tesco any time soon. The consultation outcome suggests that it will be a number of years before this happens; during which time there will be further public engagement and research and appropriate precautions put in place.
Rather poetically, the consultation outcome notes that “genetic diversity is what gives life itself resilience“. It waits to be seen how the regulatory landscape can be adapted to allow for this.