Rule changes in England to make it easier to research and develop “gene edited” food crops such as sugar beet have been announced by the government.

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

Gene editing is different from Genetic Modification (GM) as it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species and creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by natural breeding processes, but currently they are regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.

The government said gene editing of plants could help breed crops that are more nutritious or resistant to pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical pesticides that harm wildlife and boosting yields.

It could see the development of crops such as sugar beet that are resistant to viruses that hit yields without the use of pesticides, or foods from which chemical compounds that are harmful to human health have been removed.

Environment Secretary Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided.

“It is a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss."

Following the rule change on field trials, the next step planned is primary legislation to change the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude gene edited crops or livestock that could have been created – more slowly – by traditional breeding methods.

That would allow commercial marketing of gene edited products without requiring GM regulation, although they would still be subject to other rules about selling foods.

Responding to the announcement, NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “It is very encouraging to see the government’s view that new precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming, the environment and the public, and will be vital in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition.

“The world’s climate emergency points to the urgency of applying this technology to farming and this announcement is an important first step towards a properly functioning legislative system.

“These new tools could help in a number of ways, from addressing pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals and improving animal health and welfare, to increasing farmers’ resilience in the event of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and benefitting the environment through more efficient use of resources.

"This would mean lower emissions and less waste, allowing British farmers to farm more sustainably and profitably.

“Crucially, precision breeding technologies will also help in the development of foods with direct benefits to the public; better quality, increased nutritional value and products with a longer shelf life.

“We know gene editing is not a silver bullet. But if we are to make this a success, any new government regulation must be robust, fit for purpose and based on sound science. This will in turn provide public confidence, enable diverse and accessible innovation, and allow investment in products for the UK market."

However, the Soil Association warned that gene edited crops could be patented for corporate interests and called for better regulation of genetic research and more support for farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming methods.

Joanna Lewis, Soil Association director of policy and strategy said: “Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place, including a lack of crop diversity, the decline in beneficial insects, and animal overcrowding.

“We must increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.”