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UK government set to lift the ban on controversial gene editing in agriculture

The UK government is expected to lift a ban which forbids the cultivation and sale of genetically edited plants and animals, according to reports.  

A consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been assessing the ban on the practice and concludes tomorrow. 

As it stands, genetic modification is prohibited on all foods sold in the UK and Europe. 

However, the i newspaper reports that it is likely the consultation will result in this being changed. 

The Government is expected to publish a response to the consultation in the next three months. 

If the law is changed, it would allow scientists to modify any crop or animal farmed in the UK. 

This could potentially result in drought-resistant cattle, fatter pigs, juicier tomatoes, sweeter apples and disease-resistant crops like wheat and barley. 

Gene editing of any variety in humans is illegal around the world, and this review will not touch on that topic. Experts have previously said gene editing is not yet ready for human applications. 

 

A ten week consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that has been assessing the current ban on the practice concludes tomorrow. it is expected to remove a ban which prohibits the sale of any and all genetic modification on foods sold in the UK

What is genetic modification? 

Genetic modification is a technique where faulty or undesirable genes of a plant or animal are replaced with alternate versions of the same gene which are more beneficial. 

This means the best genes for a specific behaviour or trait can be selected for. 

For example, a gene which is related to plumper chickens can be introduced to a population, ensuring all birds get the gene and a are subsequently larger, increasing the farmer’s profits and giving customers more nutritional value.

The wider principle — selecting for beneficial genes — is the exact same as selective breeding which has done by farmers for centuries. 

But scientists are now lobbying to be allowed to artificially speed up the process in a lab. 

Genetic modification is a technique where faulty or undesirable genes of a plant or animal are replaced with alternate versions of the same gene which are more beneficial. 

This means the best genes for a specific behaviour or trait can be selected for. 

For example, a gene which is related to plumper chickens can be introduced to a population, ensuring all birds get the gene and a are subsequently larger, increasing the farmer’s profits and giving customers more nutritional value.

The wider principle — selecting for beneficial genes — is the exact same as selective breeding which has done by farmers for centuries. 

But scientists are now lobbying to be allowed to artificially speed up the process in a lab. 

Genome editing is not universally banned around the world, with the US, Australia and Japan among the nations that have approved the process. 

But the UK prohibited gene editing in 2018 when the European Court of Justice ruled it was effectively the same as genetic modification (GMOs) and implemented a Europe-wide ban outlawing the practice outside of scientific experiments. 

But following the completion of Brexit, Professor Gideon Henderson, chief scientific advisor at DEFRA, says there is now a willingness to dispose of Brussels’ blanket ban. 

‘There is a mindset that we would like to change the law on [the ban] – that tendency to go ahead is there,’ Professor Henderson told the i.

‘And everything I have heard so far from diverse stakeholder groups taking in the breadth of the views suggests that there is pretty general support for it.’ 

The expected move to change the existing legislation would see gene edited animals and plants no longer categorised as GMOs.   

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are more controversial than gene editing as it involves inserting DNA into an organism which has come from another species.

As it stands, any and all genetic modification is prohibited on all foods sold in the UK and Europe. However, the i newspaper reports the consultation will result in this being changed

As it stands, any and all genetic modification is prohibited on all foods sold in the UK and Europe. However, the i newspaper reports the consultation will result in this being changed

Concerns over gene editing in agriculture  

The RSPCA has released a list of issues with removing the ban on gene editing (GE): 

· There is no history of safe and reliable use

· Genetic technologies can cause unpredictable and unintended changes to the genome

· Not enough is known about the medium to long term effects on animal health and welfare

· The current rules and regulations around GMOs are still essential for regulating GEs until there is more of a proof of use – now is not the time to consider changing these

· There are alternative approaches to achieving the proposed benefits of genetic technologies e.g reducing food waste, with 12 per cent of all meat and animal products produced globally lost or wasted every year, and improving animal husbandry.

· GE products have been withdrawn from approval in the USA following the Regulator’s concerns on the transfer of other genes during the GE process.

· GE produced food could be forced onto supermarket shelves in Scotland and Wales despite those countries objecting to its production and sale

For example, taking the DNA of a gene for drought resistance from one animal — perhaps a camel — and weaving it into the DNA of a cow so that they can be farmed in areas where they would normally not be able to survive. 

Both practices have their critics and their supporters. The pros are that they could improve farming and help feed a swelling global population.

The cons are that many perceive it as ‘playing God’ and the long-term health implications are unknown.   

Farmers and scientists tend to be for the move to remove the ban, whereas animal rights activists are stoutly against it.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers Union, told the i: ‘Gene editing has the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment.

‘It could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events.’

But Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the RSPCA’s Animals in Science team, says the decision would be a backwards step for animal welfare.

‘We have real concerns about gene editing and the animal welfare issues involved,’ she said. 

‘The impact of these changes to the genome is very unpredictable and there are so many unknowns about the long term impacts of alterations to the animals’ genetic material, so there is a real risk of welfare problems being passed down the generations.

‘We are incredibly worried that the Government is considering relaxing the rules around these procedures and, shockingly, this would also see farm animals categorised with and only given the same level of consideration as farmed crops.

‘We don’t think consumers will stand for this and we want as many people as possible to let the Government know their views.’

The topic of gene editing embryos to ‘customise’ a baby has been at the forefront of science since the shock announcement in 2017 that a rogue scientist in China had used the powerful gene-editing tool Crispr on a pair of twin girls.

He Jiankui was internationally condemned for gene-editing twin girl Lulu and Nana when he blatantly flouted the existing legislation. 

The powerful tool CRISPR-Cas9 was used to snip away a section of their DNA and replaced with a HIV-resistant variant.

Genome editing is NOT yet ready to be tried safely in humans, scientists warn 

Editing the genes of embryos is not yet safe for humans, according to a report published by the world’s leading experts in fertility, ethics and biology. 

Germline gene editing is a process where faulty, diseased, or undesirable genes in an embryo, sperm of egg are removed, altered or replaced by scientists. 

This system is extremely powerful and the changes made are not only permanent, but will be passed down the generations. 

However, this landmark report says not enough is known about the safety or precision of the process for it to be trialled in humans. 

Advocates of human germline genome editing are pushing for the procedure to be investigated, as it has the ability to allow babies destined to inherit life-threatening conditions to be born disease-free. 

The topic of gene editing embryos to ‘customise’ a baby has been at the forefront of science since the shock announcement in 2018 that a rogue scientist in China had used the powerful gene-editing tool Crispr on a pair of twin girls. 

Currently, editing the DNA of a human embryo is not allowed in the US, thanks to a 2017 ruling by the international committee of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Crispr-based experiments on human embryos were approved in the UK in 2016 with the stipulation they are never transplanted to create a pregnancy and must be destroyed after a week. 

Since the invention and development of Crispr-Cas9 around 15 years ago, a prevailing problem has been a lack of understanding of how safe the procedure is in the long-term.

The definitive response provided by the report is that these questions can not be safely answered and therefore it can not be approved for human use.

The report has been published by the US National Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK’s Royal Society.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk