BRITAIN could see a new approach to genetically edited crops and animals after Brexit, Environment Secretary Michael Gove suggested yesterday.
Gene editing – which speeds up the practice of selective breeding but, unlike genetic modification, does not introduce new genes from another species – is still in its infancy.
But Gove (pictured) said the technology could boost crop yields and produce more valuable livestock. Research into how gene editing can improve fish health is already underway in the UK.
‘Gene editing technology could help us to remove vulnerabilities to illness, develop higher yielding crops or more valuable livestock, indeed potentially allow mankind to conquer the diseases to which we are vulnerable,’ the minister told the Oxford Farming Conference.
He said later: ‘I do think it’s important that we regard gene editing as a means of science helping us to do faster what farmers have been doing for generations.
‘I think we should have an open mind and not allow debates from the past to influence how we look at that technology.’
Scientists in Scotland and Europe are currently involved in a study to identify genes involved in infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) and make alterations to increase resistance. This could then be applied to produce ISA resistant broodstock for farming.
Gene editing represents a significant long-term opportunity in animal health, following on from recent breakthroughs in human health.
It is a new technology which uses enzyme systems such as CRISPR/Cas9 and TALEN, among others, to make precise, targeted alterations to the DNA sequence.
But gene editing is in a legal limbo in Europe, with the European Union notoriously reluctant to embrace the kind of genetic advances Americans take for granted.
The EU is opposed to genetically modified crops, although it introduced an opt-out rule for member countries wishing to grow EU authorised crops.
The Scottish government has not exploited the opt-out and in 2015 banned the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland.
In November, Gove reportedly said that food made from GM crops would continue to be banned in the UK after Brexit, potentially damaging Britain’s attempts to negotiate a trade deal outside of the EU because the US is expected to push for more GM-based foods to be sold in the UK.