When Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 2019, he pledged to “liberate the U.K.’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti–genetic modification rules.” The country had to hew to strict European biotech regulations until it finalized its divorce from the European Union in January. Next month, the government is widely expected to follow through on Johnson’s promise by making it easier to test and commercialize some genetically engineered crops and livestock.
The decision, which will be announced by 17 June, applies to plants and animals whose genes have been edited with precision techniques such as CRISPR. It will put the United Kingdom in line with several countries including the United States, and U.K. biotechnologists say it will speed research and stimulate investment.
“Much as I have to swallow hard and say it through gritted teeth, Brexit has at least one dividend,” says Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a nonprofit center investigating plant disease resistance. Tina Barsby, CEO of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, says the shift may be “the most significant policy breakthrough in plant breeding for more than 2 decades.”
Traditional genetic engineering endows organisms with new traits by inserting “transgenes” from other species. In contrast, gene editing alters a species’ own genes without permanently adding any new genetic material. Proponents argue gene editing is merely an acceleration of classical breeding techniques, which select for traits enhanced by mutations (often created by chemicals or radiation). “We have no reason to believe that they will be any more inherently risky than crops made with traditional breeding,” says Angela Karp, director of Rothamsted Research, a U.K. nonprofit agricultural research center.
Under the U.K. policy change, gene-edited plants and animals might not need detailed applications and reviews before field trials and commercial approval. In Europe, by contrast, any commercialized genetically modified organism (GMO), regardless of how it was created, faces a lengthy risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and must be approved by a majority of member nations before it can be planted. “It means everything just grinds to a halt,” says Wendy Harwood, head of crop transformation at the John Innes Center, a U.K. public research organization. In 2018, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed that gene-edited organisms require the same regulatory scrutiny as other GMOs.
Only a few gene-edited crops have been commercialized anywhere. One example is a tomato called the Sicilian Rouge High GABA that makes more of an amino acid said to promote relaxation, approved for sale in Japan last year. Just two gene-edited crops have made it to U.K. field trials. One, in 2018, evaluated the performance of camelina, a mustard relative, engineered to produce an olive oil–like product. And in a recent trial, researchers tested broccoli edited for improved nutrition.
Others are in the works. Rothamsted Research this month applied for a permit to field test wheat edited to contain less asparagine, an amino acid that becomes the carcinogen acrylamide when baked. The Roslin Institute, a research center at the University of Edinburgh that works on livestock, has created pigs resistant to a virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which costs U.S. and European pig farmers $2.6 billion per year. Genus PLC is commercializing the pigs in several nations.
The government decision on gene editing, which will come from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), will not apply outside England. Other parts of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—regulate GMOs themselves and are skeptical of their value. And opponents to GM liberalization say Defra is moving too fast. They worry, for example, that animals and crops modified to resist disease could promote environmentally damaging intensive farming practices.
It’s important to address such concerns, says Colin Campbell, director of the James Hutton Institute, a public research center that focuses on sustainable management of natural resources. Biotechnologists “need a license from society to operate,” he says. “The commercialization can follow when you’ve won the trust.”
Proponents also need to have realistic expectations about gene editing, says Johnathan Napier, a plant biotechnologist at Rothamsted Research. Knocking out a few genes might improve disease resistance or remove an allergen. But more complicated traits powered by many genes, such as drought tolerance, will be much more difficult to engineer without transgenic modifications, Napier warns. “This really is not a magic bullet,” he says. But controls on transgenic GMOs could someday be loosened as well; Defra has requested public comments on whether reform is needed.
Even the European Union is rethinking its approach on gene editing. An April report by the European Commission finds it could make agriculture more sustainable and found “strong indications” that EU law isn’t suitable for regulating it. Dirk Inzé, a molecular biologist at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology, a Belgian research center, is heartened. But he predicts any reforms would run into problems with the European Parliament, where anti-GMO sentiment is still strong. “The debate will be very fierce,” Inzé says.