THE UK needs an evidence-led and proportionate regulatory approach for genetically modified (GM) crops to realise the technology’s benefits for human health, agriculture and the environment, according to a new Royal Society policy briefing.
The “Enabling genetic technologies for food security” briefing, led by Professor Jonathan Jones FRS, Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, sets out recent developments in using the GM method for crop improvement. This has seen the technology used in a growing number of countries to enhance resistance to pests and diseases, improve nutrition and elevate tolerance to heat and drought.
Genetic modification, for the purposes of UK crop regulation, involves moving genes between species and is regulated differently to other breeding technologies which make genetic changes within a species.
The UK’s leading plant scientists and expertise in commercial crop breeding mean it is well placed to deliver the benefits of deploying this technology.
Discoveries made by UK scientists have already been commercialised in other countries, but not in the UK. A more supportive regulatory approach in the UK would boost innovation and result in new applications of GM methods that benefit the British public and global food security.
Earlier this year, the UK government sought to reduce regulatory barriers to genetic innovation for agriculture by passing the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which introduced a new framework in England for regulating crops that were gene edited.
However, the Act left GM crops under a regulatory regime inherited from the EU which has usually required extensive scientific and safety trials. Satisfying these requirements is so expensive that only the largest companies can achieve regulatory approval.
The Royal Society briefing argues this approach is no longer justified given the evidence from 30 years of commercial use that crops developed with GM methods are no more likely to pose unpredictable risks than crops resulting from other breeding technologies. Instead, regulation should focus on assessing scientifically plausible risks given what is known about the GM trait and the species it was introduced into.
In adopting this approach, the UK can learn from other regulators that have greater experience with GM technology, such as the US.
To support greater innovation, the US Department of Agriculture recently reformed the way it assesses environmental risks from GM crops such that crop developers do not need to invest in extensive risk assessment if there is no scientific reason to believe that the crop is likely to cause an environmental harm.
The first GM plant approved in the US under its new framework was developed by UK researchers at the John Innes Centre, Norwich: the “purple tomatoes”, developed using genes from the snapdragon plant, which have higher concentrations of health-supporting anthocyanins.
However, as a counterpoint to Professor Jones’s thesis, the US is known to have a looser relationship with the precautionary principle than the UK and the EU.
In a recent interview for The Rest is Politics: Leading, tech innovator Reid Hoffman characterised the US approach as being “Ask for forgiveness, rather than ask for permission.” To make progress people need to allow innovation. We need to be able to break things, and if something turns out to be bad for society then we can correct it, he said.
GM methods enable applications that would not be possible with other methods and could be particularly important for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while providing enough food for a rising population. These methods hold great potential in adapting crops to the pressing challenges posed by climate change, pests, diseases, biodiversity loss and invasive species.
“We need to feed people properly without destroying the planet,” said Professor Jones, whose research spans a range of GM applications, including potatoes resistant to late blight disease, which farmers currently spray 15-20 times a year to control.
“Manufacturing and spraying fertilisers and pesticides results in a significant carbon footprint and collateral damage to non-target insects and the wider ecosystem. Using GM methods, we can replace chemistry with genetics for pest and disease control.
“GM is one arrow in our quiver, but one we cannot afford to spurn. The lesson from countries that have used this technology for 30 years is that its potential risks can be regulated on the basis that they are predictable and specific to the change being made.”
Many citizens, politicians and NGOs continue to view GM with suspicion. They have concerns about cross-pollination and possible unintended consequences for biodiversity. There is also a view that technical fixes, such as GM, are a distraction from the deep agroecological food system transformation that’s urgently required, and which can deliver social and economic resilience as well as nutritional and ecological security.