THE NFU has published its response to the government’s consultation on the use of gene editing technology, saying it supports the principle of new precision breeding techniques.

The consultation was launched by Environment Secretary George Eustice at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, when he told delegates that the current rules stifle 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 and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and genetic modification (GM), in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.

But following an 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, allowing the use of gene editing for new produce.

The consultation, which closed on Wednesday, also began a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the approach to genetic modification, officials said.

Mr Eustice told the online conference: “Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions, based on science and evidence.

“And it starts today with a new consultation on proposed changes to English law to enable gene editing to take place, so that we can achieve a simpler, scientifically credible framework to govern important new technologies.

“If we are to deliver the ambitions we have for the environment and make space for nature, we must rebalance the incentives in our future agricultural policy to encourage sustainability.

“But we must also use the tools that science provides to ensure that profitable food production and sustainability go hand in hand.”

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said the organisation believes that new precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, could protect crops and animals from pests and disease, help deliver net zero and allow farmers to produce more home-grown food.

Farmers should have the choice to access the best tools available to enable a resilient and innovative British farming industry, said Mr Bradshaw.

“Gene editing offers huge opportunities for farmers and this consultation has provided room for lively debate among our membership. We believe gene editing could help address pest and disease pressures in our crops and livestock, increase resilience in the event of extreme weather, as well as reducing our impact on the environment through a more efficient use of resources.

“This would support our ambitions to become net zero by 2040, allowing farmers to farm sustainably and profitably.”

Scientists welcomed the consultation, but some environmentalists said the technology was new and untested and held risks for people and the environment.

Mr Eustice has said it would always be important to have a “robust and precautionary” regulatory system – a factor also backed by the NFU.

“We recognise that gene editing technology on its own will not be a silver bullet and if the government is to make a success of gene editing, the regulation must be fit for purpose and robust,” said Mr Bradshaw.

“It needs to be based on science, enable diverse and accessible innovation, empower public sector research organisations to drive development and allow investment in products for the UK market.

“Government must analyse the implications and discuss the issues in detail with its counterparts in other countries as well as with all parts of the UK supply chain, as a matter of urgency.

“And, it is vital that the UK is still able to trade with the EU and that the internal UK market remains functional should England take a different approach to regulating new precision breeding techniques.

“Government must analyse the implications and discuss the issues in detail with its counterparts in other countries as well as with all parts of the UK supply chain, as a matter of urgency. Above all, it must take responsibility for the policy and communication needed to inform the public to give them confidence in the proposed regulation.

“If we are to deliver the ambitions we have for British farming, the use of new and exciting tools that science offers will ensure farmers can continue to produce sustainable, climate-friendly food well into the future.”

Environment ministers from Wales and Scotland said at the Oxford Farming Conference that they took a different approach to genetic modification.

Welsh environment, energy and rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths flagged concerns over the health and safety implications of gene editing, and Scotland’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said they had reservations about the process, and it would be sensible to wait for the outcome of a review being taken.

But Northern Ireland’s minister of agriculture, environment, and rural affairs Edwin Poots said genetics could be used to better derive quality foods, for example to reduce chemical sprays for apples.