In the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU, a change is coming. On 29 September, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that by the end of 2021, researchers planning to conduct field trials of gene-edited plants will no longer be required to submit lengthy and expensive risk assessments. Many scientists believe that the change will bolster the nation’s capabilities in food-security research amid rapid environmental change.
The UK had previously followed the EU’s policy on gene-edited crops, which placed them under the same stringent regulations as genetically engineered crops. However, there are important distinctions between the two. Traditional genetic engineering inserts large sections of DNA from one plant species, known as ‘transgenes’, into another plant’s genome. Gene editing, in contrast, allows researchers to make precise, targeted changes using the plant’s own DNA (transgenes are never involved). ‘Under the EU regulations, if you’ve made small edits to a gene, you have to treat it like it’s a genetically modified organism,’ says Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at the Rothamsted Research Centre. ‘However, modern gene-editing techniques – such as CRISPR/Cas9 – allow for much more precise alterations to DNA, reducing some of the concerns that surrounded genetic-engineering.’ Policy has not kept pace, researchers argue.
Halford and many other crop scientists believe that gene-editing is merely an acceleration of the way plants naturally breed – a process of gradual genetic change that humans have long taken advantage of through selective breeding. ‘A lot of the edits that we’re making might take place during natural reproduction,’ he says. ‘DNA mutations occur all the time – without them, you don’t get evolution.’
Cathie Martin, professor at the John Innes Research Centre agrees. ‘A lot of the gene-edited changes could occur naturally, but it would take a lot of time and effort to screen them, identify them and integrate them into crops,’ she says. ‘With gene editing, you’re accelerating that process, saving huge amounts of time, effort and money.’
Halford’s team is working on gene-editing certain crops to ensure that they produce less of the carcinogenic substance acrylamide, which can form during cooking. They have used the CRISPR/ Cas9 system to knock out some of the genes involved in acrylamide production. Similarly, Martin’s team is working to increase the amount of ascorbate, a precursor for vitamin C, by gene editing tomatoes. Such techniques, if commercialised, could help to solve nutritional issues and improve food security.
Under the previous EU regulations, research and commercialisation of genetically modified crops – which applied to gene-edited varieties – was slow to get off the ground. ‘There has been a strong disinclination to fund anything that involves a genetically modified crop,’ says Martin. Halford adds that, because of the regulatory obstacles, the EU hasn’t had an application to cultivate a genetically modified crop in the past ten years. The UK policy changes come with a potential reduction in financial risk for investors. ‘When we’re talking about something that is nature-equivalent in gene editing, I think it will at least allow funders to look more favourably,’ says Martin.
‘Researchers and developers need to be confident that what they’re working on could have potential application and commercialisation. There needs to be an enabling regulatory framework for research to get off the ground,’ adds Halford.
Of course, concerns about unnatural tinkering with nature are unlikely to ever go away entirely. Halford responds to such claims by pointing out that most modern crops are already unnaturally cultivated. ‘Hexaploid wheat – the kind we grow today – doesn’t exist in the wild,’ he says. ‘Most wild potatoes are toxic. Wild oil seed rape produces hydrogen cyanide and oxalate, poisonous traits that have been bred out.’ Cultivators created safer varieties of these crops using mutagenesis, which involves changing DNA with chemicals and radiation, before selecting the favourable varieties that emerged.
Outside the EU, some gene-edited crops have already reached the commercialisation phase. The first was a crop used to make soya-bean oil with a longer shelf life, launched in 2019 in the USA. Japanese consumers can now buy tomatoes of the Sicilian rough high GABA variety, touted to produce more nutritional amino acids. And in Argentina, which has more liberal regulations on gene-editing research, Bioheuris – a plant biotech company – plans to commercialise its herbicide-resistant soya bean and sorghum soon. ‘The reality is that we’re simply not leaders in the gene-editing field in this country – there’s much more innovation in America, South America and Asia. However, we have people who are desperate to try to produce new crops and improve the UK’s agricultural credibility,’ says Martin.
Perhaps most pressingly, researchers believe that it’s essential to ready crop research for a rapidly changing environment. ‘Let’s look at what we’re already experiencing: drought, flooding, heat, high CO2, lack of fresh water, rising populations and increased crop consumption,’ says Halford. ‘Crop improvement – whether that’s through gene editing or traditional mutagenesis – takes time. If we’re going to develop more climate-resilient crops, we need to get started now.'