Does the commercialisation of genetically edited products have a future in the UK?
On 7 January 2021, the UK government announced a consultation on gene editing to consider whether the current regulations surrounding gene editing should be changed. If the regulations are changed, this could allow for the commercialisation of genetically edited products in the UK.
What is gene editing?
Gene editing is a form of technology which enables researchers to cut out targeted parts of DNA in plants and animals in order to control its traits. Once this bit of DNA has been cut out, the cell’s genetic structure repairs itself automatically, just without the targeted gene. This DNA change can then be passed on to plants and animals down the line in the same way as traditional breeding.
Gene editing is considered different from genetic modification as it deals solely with altering the genes that are already within the DNA, whereas genetic modification involves inserting genetical material from other species. Supporters of genetic editing argue that this means that the technology holds fewer risks, as no new genes are being introduced.
Examples of gene editing
There are examples of successful gene editing across the globe:
- In Argentina, gene editing has been used to develop non-browning potatoes, by removing the genes of the sugars that are responsible for the browning process.
- Scientists in the U.S. have used gene editing to shorten the length of the tomato plant’s stem and to cause it to start producing fruit at an earlier stage. This not only means that the plant takes less time to grow, but it also means that the tomato fruits grow in tighter bunches like grapes and take up less space.
- There is even a gene edited food product on the U.S. market, after company Calyxt were able to modify the soybean to produce a healthier, high-oleic oil.
Current UK law on gene editing
Currently, retained EU law regulates gene editing in the UK, supplemented by domestic legislation. In 2018, a judgment by the Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed that genetically edited organisms are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms. This regulatory framework imposes very high requirements on those who wish to sell genetically edited products, adding costs which make it commercially unviable.
However, now that the UK is out of the transition period, the government has announced that it wants to change this position so that genetically edited organisms are not regulated in the strict way that genetically modified organisms are. In the consultation document, the government have made clear that they will only allow for the looser regulations where organisms could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.
The potential advantages which could come with this proposed change in regulation are very broad:
- It could allow for the development of crops and livestock that are more resistant to disease, lowering costs spent on pesticides and antibiotics and improving animal welfare.
- Crops could also be developed to cope with more extreme weather conditions, making them more resilient to climate change and more sustainable.
- Gene editing could also be used to produce healthier and more nutritious food products for humans, as well as food products that comply with dietary requirements, such as gluten-free.
- These potential advantages are already possible in traditional, selective breeding. However, gene editing allows these developments to occur with greater precision and speed. This is of particular significance when considering the urgency of the climate crisis, as gene editing could allow for environmentally sound production methods which help to address this issue much quicker.
One barrier that could face the lighter regulation of genetic editing is acceptance by society. As a relatively unknown process to many, genetic editing is liable to the public opinion that it is a distortion of nature. This could limit the number of people who are willing to buy genetically edited products.
There is also the possibility that genetically edited foods may be more costly than non-genetically edited foods, and there may be a reluctance to pay this difference. This is especially likely when the public cannot see how the increase in cost benefits them personally, such as when a crop has been genetically edited to lower disease in crops. If the public will not buy genetically edited produce, then it might not be commercially viable for companies to make such produce.
The extent of our commercialisation of gene edited produce in the future might also be restricted by trade. If the EU regulations do not change, then we would not be able to trade our genetically edited products with EU countries without having to pay the costs required by their regulations.
The government consultation on gene editing closes on 17 March 2021. Depending on the results of the consultation, the government have stated that legislative change could occur within the next 1-2 years.
The broad potential of gene editing means that legislative change could be very beneficial to the UK. However, this will likely be very much dependent upon how the public would react to use of such products. Hopefully the results of the consultation will allow the government to fully assess how gene editing could be successfully managed in the UK.
Author: Rosie Brain (Paralegal – Commercial and Private Client Litigation).