The government needs to get a grip on gene editing before the UK loses out

Before the UK loses out on gene editing, the government needs to get a handle on it.

The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

A tomato has just gone on sale in Japan which ten years ago would have made me squeamish but now makes me grin at the sheer wondrousness of human ingenuity. The Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato is the world’s first food whose genes have been edited using CRISPR-Cas 9 technology — in this case, to provide more of the GABA amino acid which apparently lowers blood pressure. It’s already being grown by thousands of Japanese gardeners, who probably guess that decades of traditional selective breeding techniques couldn’t have achieved this result with such precision.

Eight years ago, scientists at England’s Sainsbury lab were among the first in the world to use CRISPR-Cas 9 to gene-edit plants (though for a different purpose). If I worked there, I might be quietly wondering whether it’s worth staying in the UK much longer. Despite government fanfare this week about relaxing some rules on research, there is still no way for UK-based scientists to get their discoveries to market in the UK and thus actually improve the foods we eat.

Japan is not a cowboy nation. Its regulators are treading carefully, and insist on clear labelling. But with this tomato, they have just leapt ahead in a global race. I have no idea if the Sicilian Rouge can be a substitute for statins. But I find it hard to object to its existence, when we already fortify breads and cereals with folic acid, water with fluoride and milk with Vitamin D. And I can’t help hoping that the same techniques will eventually be used to edit out the deadly allergens from peanuts and sesame seeds, which leave some anxiously policing every takeaway, school lunch and restaurant meal.

Gene editing was supposed to be a post-Brexit dividend, a way to help Britain lead the world in life sciences, by breaking free of the strict EU bans on both gene-editing, which tweaks a specific site in the genome, and genetic modification, which introduces foreign DNA. The government thinks it’s taken a big step by making it easier to plant gene-edited crops. But it hasn’t budged on genetic modification, and there is no timetable for making future decisions about how to bring these products safely and responsibly to market. As one researcher put it: “what’s the point of running field trials, which are basically product development, if you can’t get commercial approval?”

This summer I stood between two fields in the English countryside. Behind me was the world’s oldest agricultural experiment, in which researchers have studied soil quality since 1843. In front were neat rows of camelina plants, which had been modified to express the Omega-3 oils usually found in fish. This crop, its creator Professor Johnathan Napier explained, could provide us with the Omega-3 we humans are routinely told to eat, without endangering the ocean’s fish.

It seems like common sense to grow on land something that is otherwise harvested from the oceans, and which is widely acknowledged to be a public good. But Napier and his colleagues at the Rothamsted Research Centre can’t go any further unless they can develop this genetically modified plant as a commercial crop and see how it works in practice. After more than a decade the non-profit Rothamsted has now signed an agreement with a US company to develop the camelina as a commercial crop in the US and Canada, since there is no prospect of being able to do this in the UK.

This is the same old story — of British scientists pioneering brilliant techniques often with a great desire to do good, only to see other countries reap the benefits, jobs and profits. Ministers are treading gingerly, aware that some organic farmers worry about cross-pollination and some consumers distrust GM foods. But the debate is moving on, and the government risks being left behind.

The public are also out of date. For despite the EU ban, much of our meat, milk and eggs already come from animals fed with GM crops. Back in 2016, the Royal Society found that two-thirds of all protein-based animal feed in the EU came from soy, of which about 70 per cent was imported. Over 90 per cent of that was produced from GM soyabeans. This has been a long-running, inadvertent experiment which has thrown up no serious threats to human health that I am aware of.

Japan, Argentina and Brazil are licensing gene-edited products on a case-by-case basis. America regulates some genetically altered crops in a very similar way to commercial ones. Like it or not, we are heading into a world where more and more such products will become available. The question is whether the UK wants to be part of this burgeoning global industry, or cut ourselves out of it.

The Environment Secretary George Eustice has made a strong case that gene editing can make crops more resilient to pests and climate change, and produce more nutritious food. He should regulate products according to their safety, not by the underlying technique. The government has hinted it will reassess the use of GM, not just GE, “in the longer term” — which is usually code for “never”.

As the Japanese tomato was unveiled, Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Sainsbury lab sent an anguished tweet. “This really upsets me,” he wrote. “We were among the very first to develop the tech in plants, so much potential, so many opportunities.” Unless the UK moves much faster, we will see our inventions being commercialised elsewhere and imported back to us. Whether or not you fancy a gene-edited tomato, our lunch is already being eaten by other nations.

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