The Precision Breeding Act, which will allow plants to be bred using the gene-editing technique, became law in England in March. There is no change to the regulations governing genetically modified organisms.
Before growers have access to any new varieties with traits introduced by precision breeding, the Food Standards Agency has to establish a separate approval process for food marketing, which could take a further 24 months, said the British Society of Plant Breeders.
The Society described the legislation as “hugely significant” and the “first time in more than two decades that regulations have been brought forward which seek to enable and support the use of genetic innovation in agriculture – rather than to restrict or impose additional requirements.”
“Precision breeding through gene editing allows scientists to accelerate what might otherwise be possible through natural processes and conventional breeding over a longer time frame,” said Giles Oldroyd, director of the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge. “UK science and research has made extraordinary advances in this field over the last 30 years, and this law expands the remit of scientific exploration, which can only bring benefits.”
Some plants have already been developed by research organisations using this technique. A team at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich was able to make tomatoes resistant to powdery mildew by the removal of a gene that rendered plants susceptible to the disease. The technology has been made publicly available to breeders around the world, giving countries where gene-edited varieties are already allowed to be marketed a head start.
In the EU gene-edited crops still fall under the same regulations as GMOs but possibly not for much longer. A proposal to adopt a legal framework for gene-edited plants is likely to be adopted by the EC in June.