The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has launched a public consultation on the regulation of gene editing (GE) and other genetic technologies. The current UK regulatory framework – based on EU legislation – requires that all gene edited organisms are classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but DEFRA is of the view that organisms produced by GE or other genetic technologies should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods. DEFRA explains that GE is different from genetic modification where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one; gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from different species, and instead only produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods. GE is one of the fields at the intersection between biology and technology that benefit from advancements in digital technologies such as machine learning and digital modelling.
In 2018, a ruling of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) placed GE under the scope of the GMO legislation. Unlike the EU, countries such as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and the USA regulate gene edited agricultural products in the same way as those obtained through conventional breeding methods. Now no longer an EU member, the UK can develop its own legislation covering GE, a technology seen by DEFRA as able to ‘unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food’.
DEFRA’s intention generated mixed reactions; for instance, it was welcomed by scientists at the Rothamsted Research – one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world, but seen as a ‘huge mistake’ by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.