The UK’s big GMO food plan might not be that big

Every year, billions of pounds worth of potatoes are chucked in the bin because of late blight disease. The disease, which rots potatoes from the inside out, was one of the major causes of the Irish potato famine and is still a scourge on spuds today. But, in fields in Norwich and Cambridgeshire, experimental blight-resistant potatoes are growing unbothered by the disease. The only problem? No one can eat them.
These potatoes were created by taking genetic material from one organism and inserting it into another one – in this case blight-resistance genes were whisked out of a wild potato relative and put into Maris Pipers. Under EU and UK law, these kinds of crops are defined as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and are subject to strict regulations that limit how they are grown and whether they can be sold as food.
Boris Johnson has these potatoes – or at least crops like them – in his sights for a while. On the very first day of his premiership, Johnson signalled that his government would like to break away from EU laws on GMOs. “Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world,” Johnson said in his first speech as prime minister. On June 17 the government is poised to announce its response to a public consultation on genetic engineering – the first step in what might turn out to be a major re-working of the UK’s genetic engineering laws.

But here’s where things get tricky. While the changes proposed by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) would change the way that genetically-engineered crops are defined in the UK, they’re unlikely to clear a path for blight-resistant potatoes to come to our shelves any time soon. The government is keen to show that it’s blowing away the cobwebs of EU legislation, but in reality the trickiest scientific and legal questions are all still to come.
At the heart of the consultation is a question about how to regulate crops and animals that have had their genomes changed using precision gene-editing techniques such as Crispr. At the moment, EU (and UK) law makes no distinction between Crispr-edited crops and those made using older forms of genetic engineering such as transgenesis – the same technique used to make those blight-resistant potatoes. Under EU law, crops made using either of these techniques are currently classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but Defra is proposing that some gene-edited crops should not be classified as GMOs.

This change in regulations would be a relief for UK researchers who work on genetically-engineered plants, says Wendy Harwood, leader of the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Under current rules, researchers wishing to plant GM crops in field trials must go through a lengthy approval process and then follow strict rules, including leaving test fields empty for a year after the crop has been harvested. Although the EU does allow the growing and marketing of GM foods, the approval process is so long and expensive that many companies effectively consider the EU a closed market to GMOs.

As a result, field trials of genetically-engineered crops are rare in the UK. As of November 2019, only three UK-based research departments had consent to hold field trials involving GMOs. “Knowing those chances might have increased a bit, it might be a bit easier just to take that next step,” says Harwood.

A change in the definition of GMOs would bring the UK more in line with countries like the USA, which allows Crispr-edited crops to sidestep regulation governing GMOs. Jonathan Jones is a professor at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and leads the team behind the late blight-resistant potatoes. He says that genetically-engineered crops can play a major role in reducing agriculture’s impact on the planet. “The real problem comes from doing agriculture. Actually, what we want is less agriculture. And the way to have less agricultural and more land set aside for biodiversity is to have our agriculture more productive,” he says.

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