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Scientists seek clarity on gene-editing after Brexit

An open letter signed by 33 members of the agri-tech sector is seeking a new way forward on gene-editing as Britain leaves the EU

Scientists seek clarity on gene-editing after Brexit

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Plant science researchers are calling on the government to provide clarity on the future of gene-edited crops following the EU ruling that effectively prohibits their use.

An open letter signed by 33 industry figures including plant breeders, universities and biotech companies, requested a round-table meeting with Michael Gove’s Defra to seek a new direction on gene-editing.

The government has already indicated it will incorporate EU laws on GM crops into British legislation, but plant scientists are hoping one silver lining of Brexit is the chance to break with EU policy on this matter.

The open-letter was drawn up by Oxfordshire farmer and editor of Crop Production Magazine, Tom Allen-Stevens. In it he states: “We feel there are significant questions that must be addressed urgently by government if the UK is to retain its strength in plant genetics, to use innovation to boost productivity and competitiveness, and to meet the challenges of nutritional health and environmental protection.”

In July the European Court of Justice arbitrated a case brought by French farmers against their government, seeking to rule out exemptions of gene editing crops from EU GMO legislation.

Gene-editing, whereby genes are removed rather than added to organisms, has been seen as safer and simpler variety development technique, but the CJEU shocked scientists by agreeing with the farmers that it should be regulated by stringent GM regulations.

But with Britain leaving the EU in March, it’s unclear to what extent Europe’s gene-editing rules will be enforced in Britain, especially after Michael Gove’s new Agriculture Bill promised to boost agricultural innovation and technology by "making better use of genetics".

The John Innes Centre threw their weight behind the letter, joining in the call for clarity on the matter after Brexit. They cited Defra’s stance on gene editing, which states "gene-edited organisms should not be regulated as GMOs if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods”.

Professor Wendy Harwood, of the department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre said: “The CJEU decision could have major negative impacts on our ability to respond rapidly to the challenges of providing sufficient, nutritious food, under increasingly challenging conditions.”

Professor Nick Talbot, director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, described the ruling as “a retrograde step that is not based on any scientific evidence,” adding: “Precise modern gene editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome. To classify gene edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.”

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