Scientists claim that foods with optimized genes are more nutritious and pest-resistant
The government is set to introduce a landmark bill next week that will pave the way for crops to be produced with precise genetic editing techniques that make them naturally more resilient and require fewer pesticides.
Supermarket shoppers will be able to buy food made with genetically modified ingredients as early as next year, the Environment Minister has predicted.
Speaking exclusively to i, George Eustice said the Genetic Engineering (Precision Breeding) Act will come into force this year, potentially making the first GM foods available by 2023.
Mr Eustice said some products already available in other parts of the world could be submitted for evaluation for marketing authorization in England soon after legislation is passed. While the regulations will be limited to England, the products will likely be available across the UK.
“Once this bill receives royal assent, which is likely to be later this year, we will then have a regime that will allow us to grant marketing authorization to any GM seed resulting from this process.
He added: “There will likely be some of these plants that are already available and being cultivated in other parts of the world. So it’s possible that we may have some of these crops that have benefited from genetically engineered technologies ready to be used over the course of the next year.”
A non-browning mushroom quickly hit the market in the US and Canada after scientists found a natural way to tweak its genetic code to turn off the enzyme that turns the mushroom brown. It has extended shelf life and drastically reduced food waste.
Genetically modified soybeans, which can be used to make healthier and longer-lasting oil, have been available in the US since 2019, while in 2020 Japan gave the green light to a tomato containing higher levels of a compound that helps lower blood pressure reduce.
The UK move will mark the UK’s biggest departure from existing European laws since leaving the EU, which has banned the technique for years, although it is beginning to consider lifting the veto.
Gene editing involves the technique of replacing or tweaking genes that control certain traits, such as water dependence, disease resistance, and nutrition, with better-functioning genes of the same species.
Experts insist that it is simply speeding up natural breeding techniques, rather than fully introducing genes from different organisms to create something new, such as genetic modification, which is banned.
It has the potential to make plants much more nutritious and resilient to storms or pests — and to significantly increase livestock resilience and yield, proponents say.
Such products could be available in the UK from next year if they get marketing approval, but Mr Eustice said it would be closer to three to five years before “a significant number” of plants developed from seed in the UK are will come onto the market.
The cabinet minister said it was unlikely that products developed using genetic editing techniques would be labeled as such, stressing that around a third of all animal feed used in the EU is genetically edited without labeling being required.
Mr Eustice said there are plans to introduce more legislation in the future to allow gene editing to be used in livestock, but only after consumer confidence has grown.
Such a move could mean farmers can breed “hornless cattle” that are born naturally without horns, avoiding the need to dehorn the animals, which Mr Eustice says is a horrific, awkward thing to do.
“There’s a possibility that you could use gene editing to solve some other welfare-related problems, especially in poultry, for example,” he said.
“But the reason I’ve decided to start with crops at this point is because I know consumer opinion and consumer confidence on these matters, and I think there are more complex ethical issues surrounding the use of this type of.” There are breeding techniques when it comes to animals that I think people are just a little bit more nervous about.”