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Government proposals to deregulate gene editing unveiled at Oxford Farming Conference

Plans to remove EU regulations on gene editing (GE) of crops and livestock were unveiled today by the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, at the Oxford Farming Conference.

A consultation into the future regulation of gene editing was announced by Eustice, and will run for ten weeks until mid-March.

Gene editing is a controversial technique that can be used to make changes to a cell’s DNA, by deleting, replacing or adding DNA sequences. In contrast to genetic modification (GM), this does not involve adding genes from other organisms.

Speaking at the 75th annual Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), this year hosted online, the Secretary of State claimed that having left the European Union, the UK would be free of regulations which previously it had “no choice but to slavishly adopt.”

In 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that gene editing was too similar to genetic modification and thus should be subject to the same restrictions as GM crops, which currently face a near-total ban in the EU.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that gene editing “could unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather and to produce healthier, more nutritious food”.

Defra adds that “technologies developed in the last decade enable genes to be edited much more quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process, helping to target plant and animal breeding to help the UK reach its vital climate and biodiversity goals in a safe and sustainable way.”

The Department suggests that it hopes that regulations regarding the gene editing of certain organisms will be removed following the consultation, pointing to Japan, Australia and Argentina, where it says “this approach has already been adopted”.

Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said:

“The overwhelming view in public sector scientists is that the Nobel Prize winning methods for gene editing can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture. I welcome the DEFRA consultation that will help with a broader assessment of gene editing as an appropriate technology in agriculture.”

The Secretary of State revealed the consultation plans at the Oxford Farming Conference, which is usually held in the first week of January at the Examination Schools in Oxford. This year, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been held online.

Eustice was joined by his Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish rural affairs ministers, Fergus Ewing of the Scottish government, Lesley Griffiths from Wales, and Edwin Poots, of Northern Ireland.

Whilst there was some agreement between all four on the need to support the farming industry in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, Ewing, of the Scottish National Party, said that he was “very concerned” about the potential effects of cheap imports. One example of this is beef from the USA, which could hurt the competitiveness of Scottish beef farmers due to its low price.

The Labour MWA Griffiths argued that the most recent spending review from the Treasury regarding funding for farms was “incredibly disappointing” and worried that a post-Brexit farm subsidy and support scheme could be “much worse” for Welsh farmers.

There was a mixed response to the Secretary of State’s announcement on gene editing, with the National Farmers’ Union supporting the consultation, whereas other groups, such as the Rare Breed Survival Trust, have expressed concerns over “risks to livestock from the unplanned use of technology.”

Ewing also raised the fact that the EU Commission is currently reviewing the ECJ’s judgment regarding GE, and said that it was premature to proceed with a consultation now, before the Commission have published their review, which is expected in April.

The Oxford Blue was able to ask the four ministers about the role of rewilding in supporting more sustainable agro-ecology in the UK, as well as improving biodiversity and tackling climate change.

George Eustice revealed that he was currently reading Isabella Tree’s book about rewilding English farmland, and said that whilst the strategy was “not right for most farmers,” he wanted to support “nature-led revival”. Eustice said that Defra was working to support ten additional projects, similar to the one undertaken by Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex.

Meanwhile, the other ministers were less supportive of rewilding, with Northern Ireland’s rural affairs minister, Edwin Poots, labelling the strategy as a “complete and total failure,” which “took away from biodiversity.”

Ewing was equally sceptical, keen to reassure Scottish farmers that there are “no plans to reintroduce wolves or lynxes” to Scotland, and emphasised instead the “re-peopling of rural Scotland.”

Griffiths admitted that it was the first time she had used the term in any speech given in the four years in her job, saying that the majority of farmers she had spoken to were opposed to rewilding.

The Conference’s theme this year has been “Business as Unusual,” with panels and discussions focused not only on the potential impacts of leaving the EU, but also how the coronavirus pandemic has changed farming life and business.

Defra has been contacted for more detail regarding the ten rewilding projects mentioned by the Secretary of State.

Image source: Oxford Farming Conference

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for Hillary 2021. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.