Three cheers for gene-editing – but we need GMO as well

If you had the power to cut food prices and carbon emissions and improve animal welfare in a single stroke, would you do it? That’s the question Parliament is poised to answer as it debates the merits of the Precision Breeding Bill

If passed, the legislation would authorise the commercial use of gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 that allow scientists to make precise edits to the DNA of plants and animals widely consumed as food. Unlike earlier transgenic technology, used to produce “GMOs”, precision breeding does not move DNA between different species.

As I argue in the IEA’s latest Discussion Paper, Harvest time: Why the UK should unleash the power of gene editing, the bill is a monumental first step toward unleashing the power of biotechnology on England’s agricultural sector. However, policymakers should accelerate this progress by approving the commercial production of transgenic (GMO) products as well. 

The case for precision breeding

Precision breeding has already been used to engineer disease-resistant wheat, heart-healthy soy and tomatoes that boost vitamin-D levels. The technology has also helped immunise animals against deadly infections that cost farmers hundreds of millions of pounds every year. But this is just the beginning; there are hundreds of agricultural gene-editing applications in development that will benefit growers, consumers and the planet. As the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) explained last spring,

‘… precision breeding techniques can produce crops with fewer inputs, including pesticides and fertilisers, improving the sustainability, resilience and productivity of the UK’s food system. This will reduce costs to farmers and reduce impacts on the environment, as well as potentially increasing disease resistance in plants and animals, and boosting climate change resilience.’

Regulation hinders innovation

Scientists in England are at the forefront of this global biotechnology revolution. That biofortified tomato, for example, was developed by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. For now, though, regulations inherited from the European Union prevent the commercial production of almost every genetically engineered plant and animal.  

This is largely because it costs more than £ 100 million to bring a genetically engineered product (whether gene edited or GMO) to market–37.6% of which covers registration and regulatory approval. That’s a financial risk too great for small and medium-sized biotechnology companies. More established firms that could conceivably leap the required bureaucratic hurdles quit trying long ago. Since the advent of genetically engineered crops in the mid-1990s, the EU has approved just one, an insect-resistant maize variety grown in Spain and Portugal. 

While preserving necessary food-safety and environmental rules, the Precision Breeding Bill would excise much of the red tape that has kept so many gene-editing innovations locked away in the laboratory. Scientists would finally have ‘a genuine opportunity to accelerate access to some innovations that are essential for both human health and for the environment’, John Innes Centre Director Dale Sanders explained in May.  

England needs GMOs, too

Precision breeding tools will undeniably yield a plethora of benefits. But to unlock all the blessings of biotechnology, England should give its farmers access to GMO crops and animals as well. 

Recent research has shown that the economic and environmental impacts of GMOs is nothing short of staggering. Since 1996, the cultivation of GMOs has cut pesticide use by 748.6 million kilograms and agricultural CO2 emissions by 23,631 million kilograms. Along the way, farmers who grew these enhanced plants earned an additional $261.3 billion. Each year the UK denies farmers access to GMOs, they lose somewhere between £65 million and £82 million. Since 1996, that amounts to nearly £2 billion in losses. 

Critics contend that GMOs pose a unique risk to consumers and the environment, though these concerns are without merit. As I wrote in Harvest Time, ‘several thousand studies have shown that these organisms pose minimal risk … Indeed, there is substantially more data confirming the safety of GMOs than there is in support of gene-edited products.’ 

Finally free of the EU’s regulatory restraints, England is close to reaping the benefits of precision breeding. The government deserves praise if it enacts such a monumental reform, but policymakers need to abandon Europe’s hyper-precautionary restrictions on GMOs, too. Why should England needlessly cripple its farm sector while 29 other nations take advantage of technologies we know are safe and effective? Answer: it shouldn’t.  

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