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Genome editing encompasses a variety of techniques that add, remove, or replace DNA at targeted locations within the genetic code of living cells (the genome). The UK regulates all genome-edited organisms as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): “An organism…in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. The UK Government, following their recent consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies in 2021, has outlined a plan to change regulation for certain genome-edited plants in two stages: first to exempt them from GMO field trial regulation in England, and then from the regulatory definition of a GMO. In April 2021, the European Commission also questioned whether the EU’s regulatory framework for GMOs was ‘fit for purpose’ in the face of new technologies. This was based on genome editing (and other genetic technologies) producing plants whose final genome does not contain foreign DNA and are indistinguishable from plants that could be developed by conventional breeding or could occur by nature.  

Experts across government, academia and industry largely agree that genome editing could help breeders enhance crops. Genome editing can introduce small changes in the DNA sequences of specific genes known to affect traits of interest to achieve, with greater accuracy and efficiency, the desired genetic outcome of breeding techniques. However, other commentators do not agree that proposed benefits will be likely realised. Mutations are more likely to occur by nature and conventional breeding, but unintended sequence alterations might occur during genome editing. If they result in a safety concern, these lines will not be commercialised. Proponents of genome editing view it as just another tool for crop improvement. Others have highlighted concerns about over-hyping the technology, and have questioned whether the proposed timelines for benefits will be delivered. Public acceptance, in terms of potential risks and benefits, emphasise the importance of traceability, transparency and public engagement, impacts on farming and trade. 

Key Points 

  • The Government is proposing that genome-edited crop plants are exempted from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) regulations, provided the genetic changes could occur naturally or via existing conventional breeding techniques. 
  • Genome editing can manipulate DNA at specific positions in the genome to shorten timeframes for plant breeding of useful traits. This process can lead to unintended alterations of the genome, but these may be fewer than for conventional breeding. 
  • Some stakeholders believe this regulation change for genome-edited food crops could provide health and environmental benefits and make use of UK-funded research. 
  • Key issues for public acceptance and trust of genome-edited crops are tightly bound to transparency and how the public view potential risks and benefits.  

Acknowledgements 

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including: 

Members of the POST board* 

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra)* 

Professor Gideon Henderson, Defra* 

Professor Robin May, Food Standards Agency (FSA)* 

Ruth Willis, FSA* 

Dr Julian Braybrook, Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC)* 

Dr Malcolm Burns, LGC* 

Selvarani Elahi, LGC* 

Mark Buckingham, Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) 

Samantha Brooke, British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) 

Dr Richard Harrison, National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB)

Professor Katherine Denby, University of York*

Professor Lars Østergaard, John Innes Centre (JIC) 

Professor Wendy Harwood, JIC* 

Dr Penny Hundleby, JIC 

Professor Jonathan Jones, The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL)* 

Dr Nicola Patron, Earlham Institute (EI)* 

Saskia Hervey, EI 

Professor Nigel Halford, Rothamsted Research 

Professor Johnathan Napier, Rothamsted Research* 

Dr Adrian Ely, University of Sussex* 

Dr Gülbanu Kaptan, University of Leeds* 

Professor Guy Poppy, University of Southampton 

Professor Richard Flavell, International Wheat Yield Partnership 

Dr Szabolcs Ruthner, International Seed Federation 

Pat Thomas, Beyond GM 

Lawrence Woodward, Beyond GM 

Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatchUK* 

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing 


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