Technology that can “edit” the genes of plants and animals could be used to create healthier and more sustainable crops and livestock, the Government has said, writes Emily Beament.

A consultation on the future regulations of gene editing is being launched at the Oxford Farming Conference by Environment Secretary George Eustice who says the current rules have stifled the technology’s potential.

Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animals much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding which has been used for centuries to create stronger, healthier crops and livestock.

Officials say it is different from genetic modification (GM), in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one, but following a EU ruling in 2018 it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms.

Under the consultation, the rules could be changed in England to stop gene editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding techniques.

It could see them regulated in the same way as conventional crops and livestock.

The consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the approach to genetic modification, by gathering information on what controls are needed and how to deliver them, officials said.

Gene editing’s potential includes making crops and livestock more resistant to pests or disease, cutting the need for pesticides and improving animal welfare, and making food have healthier impacts such as lowering blood pressure or reducing the risk of cancer, officials said.

Professor Gideon Henderson, the Environment Department’s (Defra) chief scientific advisor, said potential environmental benefits included increasing productivity which could free up land for rewilding and tree planting, reducing the need for chemicals and fertilisers and creating crops that were more resilient to future extremes such as a drier climate.

He said people should not be afraid of “Frankenfoods”, as genetically modified foods were labelled in some quarters in the 1990s, as GM products which are already legal and available faced tight rules before getting to market.

He also said concerns about ownership of genes and the role of big business taking hold of the market, seen with GM in the 1990s, could be avoided with gene editing.

But environmentalists said the technology was new and untested and holds risks for people and the environment.

Speaking to the online conference, Mr Eustice will say: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided in order to tackle the challenges of our age.

“This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.

“Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018 which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress.

“Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation.”

Professor Robin May, the Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser, welcomed the consultation and said all genetically edited foods would only be allowed to come to market if they are judged not to pose a health risk, mislead consumers or have a lower nutritional value than existing equivalents.

Sir David Baulcombe at the University of Cambridge said: “The overwhelming view in public sector scientists is that the Nobel Prize winning methods for gene editing can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture.

“I welcome the Defra consultation that will help with a broader assessment of gene editing as an appropriate technology in agriculture.”

National Farmers’ Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said gene editing was not a silver bullet but could help meet challenges in the future, including the sector’s ambition to cut climate emissions to zero overall by 2040.

“In our drive to achieve net zero by 2040, these new tools could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events, as well as reducing our impact through a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.

“New biotechnologies are also enabling the development of foods with much more direct benefit to the public, such as healthier oils, higher vitamin content and products with a longer shelf life.”

But Kierra Box, from Friends of the Earth, said gene editing was genetic modification.

“It is also new and untested and therefore holds risks for people and the environment.

“Government tend to use fluffy terms like ‘genetic scissors’ but it regularly involves multiple changes that go far beyond natural selection and with often unforeseen consequences.”

She also raised concerns about the far reaching effects on how all forms of genetic modification would be regulated in the UK.