Love or hate it, Brexit offers many opportunities for regulatory overhaul. The recently released UK budget gets rid of the tampon tax, a financial instrument long criticised by the feminist movement (and rightfully so). Another tool of regulation which the European Union has long imposed on Britain should now also be axed: the 2001 directive on genetically modified foods. Especially with the current turbulence looming over financial markets, the UK has an obligation to its citizens to allow for better and cheaper food in the shops. New agricultural technologies can make this a reality.
The directive made genetic engineering for the purpose of agriculture practically illegal. Apart from a set of imports and a very select amount of crops, genetic engineering is itself illegal in the EU. Indeed, the language of the legislation is revealing: by calling these foods “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) – which is not a scientific description because genetic engineering describes the process, not the end product – the EU showed that its motivations were political, not scientific. Key features stand out in the legislation, for instance in this definition:
“genetically modified organism (GMO)” means an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination;”
The informed reader might know that crop varieties carrying gene mutations through radiation and chemical treatment would fall under this definition, but they are actually exempt in the same directive. It occurred to the European Union that radioactively treated foods that have existed since the 1950s would be outlawed, and so an exemption was made for this form of mutagenesis. While chemical treatments and radiation are imprecise, newer breeding technologies are not.
And this is where the UK can have an advantage over the sclerotic regulation in the EU. Gene editing, also known as “new breeding technologies (NBT)”, is a newer form of genetic engineering, in which modern technologies (such as gene scissors) are used to edit existing DNA.
Gene editing allows us to either remove, silence or insert genes from within species. This is in contrast to the often criticised transgenesis in which genes of one species are inserted into the DNA of another (hence the slur “Frankenfood”). Gene editing has the potential to make enormous advances for human health and agriculture, through a faster mechanism of editing out undesired genomes. It can be so precise in its genetic engineering, that breeding techniques from the last century appear (and are) random.
We are just at the beginning of discovering precision gene editing but even in its infant stage, it is already the most precise way of eliminating unwanted genes in crops. One example is breeding gluten-free wheat, a blessing for everyone suffering from celiac disease.
In a press release by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) earlier this month, scientists explain that the current EU rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO) are not fit for purpose anymore. In a court ruling in 2018, the European court of justice had decided that new breeding technologies should be considered as GMOs, and would, therefore, be outlawed in the EU.
The EASAC explains that current GMO classifications lack a scientific foundation. Robin Fears, head of the EASAC’s biosciences programme explains:
“A lot has happened since the first regulations have been adopted almost 20 years ago. Reform must strengthen the use of scientific evidence and tackle future uncertainties. In parallel, we need a continued and transparent discussion of the critical, including ethical, issues to build trust between scientists and the public.”
As scientists are battling the European Union to change legislation – which is provenly lengthy and hijacked by anti-science campaigners such as Greenpeace – the UK has a unique opportunity to bypass this challenge and scrap the 2001 directive altogether. Westminster could create its own set of rules, allowing for a fast-tracked authorisation process on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to sweeping and unscientific generalisations by Brussels.
In a time of economic uncertainty, genetic engineering gives us the opportunity to make food safer, cheaper and more affordable. Evidence shows that genome editing has benefits for nutrition and productive, low-pesticide and resource-conserving agriculture. If the government seeks to combine its efforts for improved purchase power, while reducing its CO2 emissions and cutting (now necessary) crop protection tools, then it should look to cut red tape on vital agricultural technology.