A new bill has been designed to make the gene-editing innovation easier in the UK, however, some campaign groups have raised their concerns that the government haven't considered all of the pros and cons. In this blog, we discuss everything you need to know about the introduction of gene-editing, whilst also listing some of the pro's and con's.
Back in 2019, when Boris Johnson became the prime minister, he pledged to "liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules." The country had to follow the European biotech regulations until it had finalised its divorce from the European Union back in January. Across this next month, the government are expected to now follow through on the promise that Boris Johnson made, by making it easier to test and commercialise some genetically engineered crops and livestock.
This decision applies to plants and animals whose genes have been edited with precision techniques with the likes of CRISPR. It's going to put the UK in line with several different counties including the United States. UK biotechnologist's say that it's going to speed research and stimulate investment into agri-food research and innovation.
Critics have been arguing about the distinction between both gene-editing (GE) and genetic modification (GM). One group called GM Freeze, has even branded gene-editing as nothing more than "genetic modification with better PR.".
But what is the difference between the two?
One of the key distinctions between gene-editing and genetic modification is that gene edited crops could've come about through cross-breeding - and the technology allows these changes to happen in a much shorter period of time.
GE is also carried out using a technique known as 'Crispr-Cas9' - this harnesses a DNA sequence found in organisms such as bacteria. The sequence then detaches and destroys DNA from similar organisms in the case of infection - this can be used to make extremely precise small deletions in a targeted gene.
Whereas GM, involves inserting genes from other organisms, which is usually bacteria, resulting in the crop taking on completely new characteristics that are associated with the gene.
The benefits of gene-editing are quite substantial - it provides the opportunity to edit crops so that the world can be fed with less land and with a much lower environmental impact, even as the effects of climate change continue to threaten food production. It provides the opportunity to offer health benefits for consumers whilst offering multiple economic opportunities. Here are some of the other advantages that gene-editing offers:
Greater Nutrition - Gene-editing could be used to create even more nutritious crops, such as vitamin D-enriched tomatoes. Scientists have recently announced that they have been able to create genetically edited tomatoes, and each contain as much provitamin D3.
A professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton has stated that "gene-editing tomatoes to accumulate provitamin D3 at levels above recommended dietary guidelines could result in better health for many".
Resistance To Disease & Pests - Crops will be grown to be more resistant to disease. Worldwide, an estimated 20-40% of crop yield is lost to diseases and pests, according to CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International). With gene-editing, crops can also be grown to be more resistant to pests - meaning that we will be able to reduce the use of pesticides and even reduce waste.
Reduced Costs - Gene-editing could make farming much more efficient by raising yields and guarding crops against environmental pressures and even diseases, this could help towards reducing production costs, which will then result in a knock-on effect for the cost of food for all consumers.
Adapt To Climate Change - Climate change is expected to continue to bring extreme weather patterns like floods or droughts - however, with gene-editing, crops could be edited so that they're more resistant to extreme weather patterns. This will be a crucial part of produce adapting to climate change.
Like all technologies, gene-editing can be used in positive or negative ways. Although most scientists now agree on the opportunities that are presented by gene-editing, some political and ethical challenges still remain.
Traceability For Consumers - The UK government have plans of allowing gene-edited products to be sold without clearly stated labels, despite a survey that was conducted last year by the Food Standards Agency. This found most consumers wanted them to be labelled as "genome-edited" to understand what they're actually buying. This could cause issues for consumers that don't agree with gene-edited products who are actively trying to avoid purchasing them.
Ethical Considerations - The same technologies that are being used to create gene-edited foods could be used for other damaging uses. Although gene-editing can be used in a positive way in healthcare, it also raises difficult ethical questions as to whether there will be limitations to the conditions that gene-editing is used.
There are also other ethical questions about the way the scientific research is supporting the use of CRISPR in these areas and how it's being carried out. Even the role of the scientist carrying out the gene editing raise concerns, along with their liability in the case of any accidents that could occur.
Knock-On Effects - Some argue that gene-editing can result in some undesirable knock-on effects if they aren't properly regulated. For example, if some animals are made immune to specific diseases, it could encourage farmers to keep more animals in much smaller spaces, this can cause a negative impact on animal welfare - and this is something that people have been fighting to improve for many years. However, scientists have acknowledged that gene-editing is much more likely to have a positive impact on animal welfare, along with strict regulations.
Lack of Knowledge - According to research conducted by the Food Standards Agency last year, 42% of consumers had never even heard of gene-edited food products before, and an additional 21% had heard of it, but felt as though they knew nothing about it.
37% of respondents have stated that gene-edited food products "probably" or "definitely" shouldn't be for sale compared to the 32% who said that they "probably" or "definitely" should be sold - meaning that without the knowledge of gene-edited foods and the process behind it, consumers don't seem too keen for them to be sold, especially without honest labelling.
Although there is no simple way to fixing our food system, it's going to require all countries to be open to innovation and adoption of new tools and technologies. The risk from gene-editing can't be reduced to zero, however, there are ways to significantly reduce it with the right approach to policy and regulations. Gene-editing could potentially become an important part of our future food system - which is a system that can provide healthy, sustainable, and affordable food for all consumers.
Let us know your thoughts on the introduction of gene-edited foods!