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expert reaction to a press release on the government response to the gene editing consultation

The government have published a press release on new plans to unlock the potential benefits of gene editing as part of their response to the gene editing consultation.


Prof Bruce Whitelaw FRSB, Professor of Animal Biotechnology & Interim Director of The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“I echo Defra’s positioning of genome editing technology as an important tool to address animal welfare concerns and reduce the carbon footprint of livestock production, and therefore benefit society. I also wholeheartedly concur with Defra’s considered conclusion that any safety risk, with reference to the method of production, for an organism produced by gene editing is the same as that of a traditionally bred or naturally occurring version of that organism. Importantly, in doing so Defra have clearly positioned the UK as one of the countries to benefit from the exciting opportunities genome editing technology offers. This is very timely and reflects a view which is more and more being recognised internationally, an aspect very much needed in this time of flux in trading relationships. I welcome Defra’s proposed evidence-based rather than emotion-driven approach to manage risks and capture benefit by proceeding step-by-step, starting with plants and with the intent to consider use in animals later. This is an approach that should generate confidence in the regulatory process. I am a strong advocate for the technology, a confidence that comes from seeing projects emerge which benefit animal, farmer and consumer alike – such as those which reduce the burden of disease in animals. I view Defra’s intention to incentivise innovation as pointing the way to capture the benefits of this technology, supporting UK innovation in both future plant and animal agriculture.”


Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group Leader at the Earlham Institute, said:

“Given the urgency of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security and the enormous potential genetic technologies have for developing crops for sustainable agriculture, today’s announcement on gene editing does not go far or fast enough.

“The Government must bring forward modern, progressive and proportionate regulations to allow gene edited products to be brought to market and provide consumer confidence. The UK is already home to some of the best plant scientists in the world. Removing some of the barriers for developing gene-edited crops will help UK scientists progress their research – but continuing to prevent the commercial application of their research risks starving plant science of the critical investment needed.

“There’s still a clear need for new regulatory practices to prioritise the growth of healthy, nutritious, and environmentally beneficial crops rather than focusing on the techniques used to develop them.

“To compensate, UK plant science must be an immediate investment priority. This will enable new agri-products that drive green growth, benefiting our planet and society.”


Prof Denis Murphy, Emeritus Professor of Biotechnology, University of South Wales, said:

“The announcement by DEFRA that the UK is to ‘begin to enable use of gene editing technologies’ in research is a welcome first step to rolling out this important tool for crop and livestock improvement.

“Much of the developed world is already proceeding with gene editing and a recent EU report has recommended that it should also be adopted in the EU nations.

“Several groups of UK scientists are currently at the forefront of these technologies and field trials of gene-edited wheat to reduce potential carcinogens were recently approved.

“The challenge now will be to ensure that safe and carefully regulated gene editing technologies are able to be moved from the lab to the real world of food production in the UK, as is already occurring in several other countries.”


Prof Linda Partridge FRS, Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, said:

“With the UK’s departure from the European Union, it is welcome that the Government is looking at how our laws can continue to assure the safety and efficacy of new technologies, like genome editing, whilst making the most of the opportunities that all genetic technologies present to help tackle food security and the crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.

“The Royal Society has a long-standing position that applications for genetic technologies, including genome editing and genetic modification, should be regulated based on the trait that has been introduced rather than on the process used to introduce the trait.

“Regulating genetic technologies on the basis of whether the outcome could or could not have been achieved using traditional breeding technologies perpetuates the false assumption that risk and benefit are determined by the technology used to make a genetic change to a crop. As the Government moves ahead with wider legislative reforms of the regulatory system, the Society would like to see active consideration of a system which weighs the consequences of a genetic change – and the farming system in which it is deployed – ahead of the technology being used. 

“Public input on what purposes genetic technologies should be used for will be an important part of any future regulatory system. In its response to this consultation the Royal Society proposed a public forum as a model for future consideration.”


Prof Nick Talbot, Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, said:

“We welcome the government’s announcement on genome editing. This technology will help plant breeders create new crop varieties to provide healthy and nutritious food in a sustainable way.  In the face of the climate emergency, we need new innovation in agriculture. We have to work together to make agriculture more sustainable and much less dependent on fossil fuels. Doing nothing is no longer an option.”

“Genome editing provides the opportunity to deliver knowledge-based plant breeding and harness plant biodiversity.  We can achieve the outcomes of plant breeding—which has been so successful in controlling diseases and improving yields—but in a much more precise manner. In this way, we can aim to produce nutritious crops requiring much lower fertiliser inputs and with greater resilience. However, other genetic technologies should not be discounted. Genetic modification (GM) allows us to move genes from one plant to another, enabling the development of disease-resistance in ways that cannot be achieved through genome editing alone. Both methods will be needed to help us escape from the chemical treadmill of current agriculture.”


Prof Anthony Trewavas FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is long overdue. It is good news that at last UK agriculture can benefit from a technology that can now start the serious business of tailoring crops to deal with pests more adequately and that should reduce the price of food and increase its abundance and stability in the shops. My earnest hope is that finally we can reduce the area of land used for agriculture by increased yield/ha and return it to forest, meadow or other natural state.”


Prof Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre, said:

“I’m pleased that the Government is acting to change the regulation of gene edited plants and I welcome today’s announcement. But while DEFRA’s announcement is a step forward for crop trials, it is disappointing that the decision applies only to research and development.

“We will only see the benefits of these technologies if crops developed this way are able to reach supermarkets and customers.  It is frustrating when scientific breakthroughs cannot lead to genuine improvements to the foods that we eat. 

We need fundamental change to the way we regulate crops produced by genetic technologies if we’re going to make the most of the opportunities that recent advances in genetics has given us.

“We urge the Government to progress the plans to bring these products to market as a matter of urgency. We now have an opportunity to streamline the process and looking ahead we should be regulating crops based on the characteristics they possess rather than how they are produced.”


Prof Murray Grant, the Elizabeth Creak Chair in Food Security, University of Warwick, said:

“This decision is the first step in allowing the world class innovation in UK plant science to be translated into addressing the global nutritional and food insecurity we currently face, and which will only be exacerbated by a changing climate.

“Gene editing (GE) is a transformative technique that has enormous potential to deliver crops with improved nutrition and disease resistance and resilience to climate change. In a nutshell GE allows precise targeting to improve beneficial traits in the same manner as achieved by conventional breeding and selection methods, but in a much faster time frame. Moreover, it allows one to simultaneously target multiple beneficial traits at the same time or multiple members of the same gene family that collectively contribute to key traits – something that is not realistic using conventional breeding.

“The next steps, to implement appropriate regulatory oversight, alongside education and ensuring consumer choice, will be paramount to the successful engagement of GE.”


Prof Wendy Harwood, Head of the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre, said:

“Genome editing is the most exciting technology that I have seen in my many years working in crop science. The technology makes it possible to introduce small changes in crop DNA that lead to the characteristics we need such as disease resistance, better nutritional quality or more resilience to climate extremes.  To fully realise the positive impact of this technology, it is essential that we can assess genome edited plants in the field. So I welcome today’s announcement, which offers changes to make this process less of a burden for researchers, while still having the necessary oversight.”


Prof Jonathan Jones FRS – The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said:

“I welcome the decision of DEFRA to act on the scientific consensus about the utility and safety of gene editing for crop improvement. Enabling plant breeders to take advantage of these benign and useful methods is essential to increase food production by 50% by 2050, in a warming world, while minimizing agrichemical use.”

“I’m also pleased to see in the DEFRA statement that there are plans to reassess use of the GM method for crop improvement. In our own work, we move immune receptors from one plant to another, increasing the plant’s capacity to know when it needs to activate its defences thus imparting genetic resistance.  The government must not miss the opportunity to facilitate use of this benign and helpful method for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, and I look forward to seeing this reassessment implemented.”


Prof Lesley Torrance, Director of Science at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said:

“We welcome this decision; while it is important to thoroughly scrutinise new breeding technologies to ensure the highest standards for food safety, it is also important that regulations are updated to take account of new information and new developments. 

“This decision reflects this approach, and applying gene editing techniques will facilitate the development of new crops selected for climate resilience and provide healthy nutritious food while safeguarding the environment.  Gene editing techniques allow the breeding of new crops more quickly, which is essential to mitigate the challenges posed by our changing environment.”


Prof Angela Karp, Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research:

“We very much welcome this important announcement that regulation of gene edited crops for research and development will now be approached in an appropriate, evidence-based manner. Gene editing gives us a powerful new tool to accelerate the generation of plant varieties that can potentially be more nutritious, more resilient against climate change and grown with a reduced environmental impact. Rothamsted Research looks forward to building on our science in gene editing to help deliver the crops farmers will need to deliver on COP 26 emissions targets and beyond. Having just had a field trial approved by DEFRA for a new variety of low-asparagine gene-edited wheat, we will now be able to scale up our field scale studies and accelerate the creation of new varieties that can future proof our farming.”


Dr Penny Hundleby, Senior Scientist, John Innes Centre.

“This is a cautious step in the right direction, enabling scientists and plant breeders to evaluate new traits under field conditions in the UK. However, it falls short in allowing this technology to be used to improve crops for the benefit of the environment and consumers.

“For scientists this announcement means that we can continue to do what we have been doing with less paperwork and reduced costs for research.”


Prof Guy Poppy, Professor of Ecology, University of Southampton, said:

“This is welcome progress which has hopefully been made more possible by society’s increasing respect for science and scientists. Gene editing does have the potential to improve agriculture and in turn environmental and human health. However, whilst I understand why DEFRA propose a proportionate step by step process, I do fear that the travel along that path will be slow, complex and fraught with continuing claims and counter-claims.”


Prof Huw Jones, Chair in Translational Genomics for Plant Breeding, Aberystwyth University, said:

“We need precise and more rapid breeding methods to face the challenges of food security in a rapidly changing world. The regulation of new breeding techniques must ensure safety while also enabling innovation. I welcome the cautious and stepwise approach taken by Defra to develop a proportionate way to regulate gene editing for food. However, I also believe it is time to take a fresh look at the regulation of biotechnology as a whole.”



Declared interests

Prof Bruce Whitelaw:  I receive funding from the BBSRC and am a non-exec director of Roslin Technologies Ltd.

Prof Dennis Murphy: No interests to declare

Prof Nick Talbot: “Nick is in receipt of funding from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, The Leverhulme Trust and UKRI (BBSRC and GCRF Funding) and is a Gatsby Plant Science Advisor. He is also a member of the John Innes Governing Council and Board member of PBL Technology.”

Prof Jonathan Jones: “Professor Jonathan Jones is a senior investigator at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, and uses molecular and genetic approaches to study disease resistance in plants. Jones co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market ( Jones is on the board of, the science advisory board of the 2Blades foundation ( and the board of NIAB Cambridge University Farm. Jones has isolated and is deploying new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, and conducting field trials to evaluate how well they work to protect the crop in the field and to generate improved varieties of potato (see See also”

Prof Wendy Harwood: “I am a member of the Food Standards Agency Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) but this quotation is in a personal capacity.”

Dr Penny Hundleby: “I am part of a technology platform that offers GM and gene editing resources to the UK and international research community. Honorary lecturer at the University of East Anglia.”

Prof Lesley Torrance: “Lesley is Executive Director of Science at the James Hutton Institute (80%) and is also employed by the University of St Andrews as Professor in School of Biology (20% contract). She also receives research funding from UKRI GCRF for work on potato production systems in Africa.”

Prof Angela Karp: “No COIs”

Prof Guy Poppy: “Prof Poppy is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the Food Standards Agency and is Director of the UKRI programme ‘Transforming the UK food system for healthy people and a healthy environment’.”

Prof Huw Jones:

Direct employment: Aberystwyth University 2016 – current; Rothamsted Research 1998 – 2016.

Other fee-paid work from relevant organisations, consultancies etc.: BBSRC grant review panels 2000 – current; FSA ACNFP 2019 – current; Expert, GMO panel, European Food Safety Authority 2009 – 2018.  As external examiner of the university PhD viva process, I have sometimes receive a small honorarium in addition to travel and accommodation costs from the university hosting the examination (since 2007 I have been external examiner for ten PhD viva voce examinations in UK and abroad).  I have received small payments of royalties from publishers for academic books written or edited.

Membership, affiliation, trusteeships or decision-making position with relevant organisations: Fellow of Royal Society of Biology 2002 – current.  Honorary Professor, School of Biosciences, Nottingham University 2009 – 2018.  Honorary researcher, Rothamsted Research UK, 2016-2019.  Member of the EPSO Plants for the Future. Gene editing working group 2019 – current.  Chair, UK Plant Sciences Federation Working Group on Regulatory Frameworks 2014-2015.  Monogram steering committee, 2011 – 2015.  Member of BBSRC pool of experts, Jan 2017 – current.

Other personal interests: I am invited to attend typically between 5 and 10 conferences or other meetings per year where the travel and accommodation (if applicable) are paid for by the host organisations.  I have never received a fee to participate in such meetings.

Indirect financial or non-financial support from relevant organisations: I am a member of the IBERS Aberystwyth University research team in receipt of a BBSRC Core Strategic Programme Grant Resilient Crops BBS/E/W/0012843.  I am one of four academic supervisors for an Aberystwyth University/Syngenta PhD studentship, using molecular genetics to design sentinel plants for detecting biotic stress, 2017-2020.  I am a UK representative of an EU COST Action PlantEd ‘Genome editing in plants – a technology with transformative potential’ 2019 – 2022.  I am a UK representative, working group and management committee member of an EU COST Action iPlanta CA15223. ‘Modifying plants to produce interfering RNA’ 2017 – 2020.  I led a research project: Smart Labels for GMO foods, Aberystwyth University Transforming Social Science Fund, £1K Jan, 2017.  Rothamsted Research was in receipt of funding from BBSRC Tools and Resources Development Fund BB/L017768/1, 2014 – 2016, HD Jones & K Edwards, Development of specific TALENs for precision engineering in wheat.”

None others received.

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