10 December 2021

Splice of life: why Brexit Britain must embrace genetic engineering

By Cameron English

In his first speech as prime minister in 2019, Boris Johnson rightly declared that the time had come to ‘liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti–genetic modification rules’.

Now, his government is poised to take a significant step towards that goal by reforming some of the stringent agricultural biotechnology regulations imported from the European Union. This would give farmers the opportunity to grow crops enhanced with gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9.

This would give British consumers access to more nutritious, less expensive food and boost farm profits — all while cutting chemical pesticide use and protecting biodiversity. However, it would not extend to genetically modified organisms (GMO) or animal gene editing.

As I explain in a new report for the Adam Smith Institute, ‘Splice of Life’, this approach would be inconsistent with the scientific evidence and must be addressed if the UK is to promote sustainable food production.

Why gene editing?

The case for agricultural gene editing is simple and compelling. As Defra Chief Scientific Advisor Gideon Henderson has argued, techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 allow scientists to rapidly develop crops with a diversity of traits that benefit both consumers and farmers.

For instance, researchers are developing gene-edited sugar beets immune to virus yellows disease, which has decimated eastern England’s crop yields in recent years. ‘Some farms saw yields halved because of virus yellows during 2020-21,” Farmers Weekly reported in March, ‘prompting some farmers to stop growing the crop’. Growers given access to disease-resistant sugar beet would likely see significant yield increases in the coming years – which they could pass on to consumers in the form of lower food prices.

Enhanced sugar beet is just one example among many gene-edited plants. Unlike their ‘GMO’ predecessors, these CRISPR-enhanced varieties generally do not contain DNA from other species, removing any justification for regulating them under the UK’s existing “GMO Legislation.”

Many countries have already adopted gene editing regulations similar to the sort Britain is considering, and the results are impressive. Japanese consumers can now purchase hypertension-fighting tomatoes, for instance, and Americans have been consuming gene edited soy for almost two years. But that’s just the beginning. In 2020 alone, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) deregulated 70 gene-edited plant varieties. There is no reason the UK could not match, or even exceed, America’s progress in agricultural gene editing.

What about the risks?

UK scientists and public officials are generally supportive of these regulatory improvements, but a handful of environmental activist groups have pledged to fight the government’s liberalised rules. They claim that gene editing is an attempt to play god with technology we don’t fully understand, and that it gives big seed companies like Bayer too much control of the food supply.

These allegations are neither new nor convincing. Gene editing is a well-understood technology and unlikely to cause some sort of unintended catastrophe. As a 2019 study published in the journal Nature explained:

CRISPR-Cas9 is remarkably specific and efficient at generating on-target genome edits. While CRISPR-Cas9 has the potential to generate off-target cutting in genomic sites that are substantially similar to the target site, off-target edits are likely to be negligible in the background of existing natural variation and continuous unintended changes being generated during the plant breeding process.

Moreover, relaxed gene-editing rules will enable smaller firms and public universities to commercialise new crop varieties. That will mean more competition for established giants like Bayer and Syngenta, weakening their control of the seed market. A recent survey conducted among EU plant breeding companies found that more than 60 firms, most of which are small and midsize operations, are eager to supply farmers with a wide variety of gene-edited products should European regulators allow.

In other words, opponents of gene editing have it exactly backwards. Strict regulations raise compliance costs and keep smaller firms from doing business, as any economist knows. Indeed, this is precisely why most GMO seeds are sold by just a handful of corporations: they’re the only institutions that can spend the $135 million or so it costs to get a new crop variety approved.

GMOs: coming soon?

DEFRA also announced in September that it plans to conduct a long-term ‘review of England’s approach to GMO regulation more broadly’, suggesting that UK farmers may one day be allowed to grow gene-edited and GMO crops. This is an overdue proposal that would yield additional enormous economic and environmental benefits, as some 29 countries around the world have already shown.

The farming industry benefits from GMOs are overwhelming. According to a 2020 analysis by UK-based PG Economics, farmers benefited to the tune of £170 billion ($225 billion) from GMOs between 1996 and 2018 while consumers save £18 billion per year across the globe. Meanwhile, British farmers have lost out, by around £1.7 billion since 1996, due to the GMO ban.

There have also been substantial environmental gains. According to the same PG Economics study, countries that grow GMO crops have dramatically boosted yields while using roughly 800 million fewer kilograms of pesticide and reducing carbon emissions by 23 billion kilotons – the equivalent of pulling 15.3 million cars off the road, or 48.5% of all registered vehicles in the UK.

Britain’s rapid progress toward sensible gene-editing rules is admirable, but it is only a half-measure. The evidence clearly shows that crop genetic engineering in all its forms poses little risk to human health and promotes sustainable food production. It’s time the UK utilises the technology to its full potential.

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Cameron English is the Director of Bio-Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a consumer advocacy group dedicated to promoting evidence-based public policy and refuting health scares.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.