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expert reaction to Defra consultation on gene editing

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) have published a consultation today on gene editing.


Comments sent out 12 January 2021:

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

“This public consultation on gene editing comes at a pivotal time. The urgent and interconnected challenges of food security, climate change, biodiversity loss and human health requires the rapid development of healthy crops that improve the sustainability of agriculture. Gene editing technologies provide safe, efficient and cost-effective methods of accelerating the development of nutritious crops that require fewer agrichemicals.

“The safety of an organism is dependent on its characteristics and use, rather than on how it was produced. Genome edited crops have the same types of genetic changes as those developed using long-established conventional breeding technologies and are substantially different to first-generation genetic modification technologies. The 30 years’ old EU regulations in use today are not fit for purpose. England now has the opportunity to set its own regulations and standards to enable scientists, ecologists, farming communities and food producers to work together on developing agricultural products and practices for a changing climate, both here in the UK and to compete in global markets. To do this, we need up-to-date responsive and evidence-based regulatory frameworks.”


Comments sent out 7 January 2021:

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

“I welcome the fact that DEFRA is consulting on this topic and is engaging with the research and the wider views of the community. Gene editing potentially offers many solutions to current issues that face agriculture, and the technology can potentially contribute to a sustainability agenda that sees agriculture practiced in a way that gives enhanced compatibility with the environment.  Like many areas of science, gene editing should be regulated, and this consultation gives us an opportunity to discuss and ensure this is done appropriately.”


Dr Mark Downs, CEO of the Royal Society of Biology, said:

“Being able to use the full potential of science to respond to need is very important, so is being able to identify safe and effective ways to do this. It is right that there should be a comprehensive review and consultation on the potential role of gene editing in plant and animal breeding, to set out and assess the evidence on how this might be done.     

In our recent report on plant science – Growing the Future (2019) – we noted that ‘An ongoing, broad and balanced debate is needed on the UK’s ambitions for agricultural production, taking into account new technologies, crop varieties and plant protection products, which can then inform decisions about regulation.

Technologies old and new can be combined to produce new plant varieties for agriculture and for use in biorefineries, relevant to both established markets and development needs. Well-informed public and policymaker views and workable regulatory systems are essential to avoid an innovation gridlock where desirable products are achievable but not realisable, or where research is pursued but not a societal priority.

Ongoing and open conversation between plant scientists, social scientists and other stakeholders should be encouraged in order to engage with the public in discussions and decisions about innovation, and to interact with practitioners, including farmers, foresters and conservation managers.’

In responding to this consultation we will have clearly in view that gene editing is relevant to all organisms and a comprehensive assessment of the current landscape and potential as part of this conversation is very timely.”


Dr Adrian Ely, Reader in Technology and Sustainability at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said:

“This consultation was originally planned for the Autumn.  It is good to see it going ahead, but important that it proceeds in an open and transparent fashion, welcoming views from all sides.

“Consultations usually focus on whether a decision to deregulate might be desirable, rather than seeing it as a fait accompli.

“Gene editing encompasses a set of technologies, each with their own characteristics and considerations.  It will be important that the consultation differentiates between these and considers them carefully.

“Claims about gene editing’s benefits for the UK’s nature and the environment are subject to numerous assumptions and uncertainties.  We need to take the time to consider these carefully, rather than accepting them without interrogation.

“The potential for gene editing (or any new technology) to contribute to more environmentally-friendly farming will be determined by the new incentive structures influencing UK agriculture.  The Agriculture Act and Environmental Land Management Scheme is vital in this regard.  The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill could prove even more important.

“’Global Britain’ has a responsibility to consider the implications of its technological choices alongside partner countries across the world.

“WTO rules prohibit us from regulating the safety of foods differently on the basis of whether they are produced domestically or come from overseas.  Allowing gene editing in the UK would require us to open up indiscriminately to GE food imports from around the world.”


Professor Katherine Denby, professor in the biology department at the University of York, said:

“What makes genome editing technology so exciting is that it enables scientists to make precise changes in an organism’s DNA at precise locations (not disrupting other parts of the genome as earlier genetic modification techniques did) and to make changes without leaving behind additional foreign DNA sequences (e.g. marker genes). These precise DNA changes are often indistinguishable from changes made via traditional mutation or breeding techniques – but crucially are generated much faster using genome editing.

“Being able to target specific sequences of DNA and change them in a precise manner makes genome editing a powerful tool to address many challenges in the UK and global food system. Genome editing could help increase resistance to pests and disease in crops and animals, reducing the use of antibiotics and chemical pesticides and enhancing animal welfare; enhance the nutritional quality of food; remove allergens from food; reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture and aquaculture; increase the climate resilience of our food system; and reduce waste, for example by lengthening the shelf life of fruit and vegetables. 

“The impact of genome editing depends on how it is used, what specific changes are made in what organism but its precision and speed have the ability to transform the development of new crop and animal breeds, and help drive more sustainable food production.”


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

“I welcome the DEFRA consultation. Gene editing provides the opportunity to carry out precision plant breeding and thereby harness the extraordinary biodiversity of crop species.  In this way, very complex traits that contribute to the yield of crops and their ability to adapt to environmental changes, can be better understood, and new varieties developed.  It is vital that this technology – already recognised by the Nobel prize and of vital importance in biomedical science – is evaluated by DEFRA for use in agriculture in the UK.  This consultation is a vital first step in the process.”


Prof Ian Crute, former Chief Scientist of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Director of Rothamsted Research, said:

“Genetic improvement of crops and livestock is a vitally important activity to counter threats posed to productive agriculture by climate change and the emergence of new pests and diseases. Adoption of gene editing, alongside established practices deployed by crop and livestock breeders, has the potential to add speed and precision to this vital and continuous endeavour. I welcome the initiative to undertake the proposed consultation.” 


Prof Johnathan Napier, Flagship Leader, Rothamsted Research, said:

“I and colleagues at Rothamsted welcome the announcement of a public consultation on gene editing and we look forward to providing impartial and robust scientific evidence on this topic. Gene editing will revolutionise the Life Sciences and has great potential to enhance plant breeding and make agriculture more efficient and environmentally-friendly. Given the many challenges we face in 2021, it is a very positive development that Government and DEFRA are seeking to better understand public opinions on these new genetic technologies.”


Prof Jonathan Jones FRS, Plant Scientist, The Sainsbury Laboratory, said:

“I’m delighted to see the launch of this consultation by DEFRA on the use of gene editing methods in plant breeding, and also pleased to see that DEFRA seeks to gather evidence on updating our approach to use of the GM method for crop improvement.

“We are facing a ‘perfect storm’ challenge to sustainable food production over the next 30 years. Because it takes a long time to convert genetic improvements to widespread adoption of a new variety, we need to act now and urgently to create the improvements that we will all be benefiting from in ten years’ time. Of course, reduced food waste, reduced meat consumption and enhanced cultivation methods are important, but crop genetic improvement is also required, so that we can produce more food on less land, sparing other land for biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

“Crop genetic improvement can involve either or all of the three methods of (i) classical chemical or radiation mutagenesis, introgression and plant breeding; (ii) incorporation of additional genes using Agrobacterium (the “GM method”); and (iii) editing endogenous genes. They are not mutually exclusive; all can help us address this ‘perfect storm’.

“In the context of Brexit and the UK hosting COP26, excessive regulation impedes safe methods to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and Brexit enables regulatory flexibility. The creation of the Oxford vaccine in 10 months exemplifies the value of science and of nimble deployment of the science. Therefore, it is entirely right that the Government is establishing a consultation about appropriate regulation of gene editing, and seeking views about use of the GM method as an additional tool to increase crop productivity and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.”


Prof Mick Watson, Personal Chair of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“Not only does the information in their genes control how animals grow, it also provides routes for pathogens such as viruses to enter animal cells and cause disease.  Scientists at The Roslin Institute, and elsewhere in the world, have identified genes, or loci, within animal genomes that confer both susceptibility and resistance to a range of diseases, and we have demonstrated the power of gene editing by creating pigs that are resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, a devastating viral disease.

“As well as improving animals’ ability to respond to disease, gene editing could also be used to create fitter, healthier animals with higher standards of animal welfare.  I welcome this initiative from Defra which could place cutting-edge technology at the heart of UK livestock improvement.”


Prof Denis Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology and Head of the Genomics & Computational Biology Research Group, University of South Wales, said:

“This is a welcome development that will be broadly supported by UK farmers and crop scientists. Genome editing is already used in medicine and has immense potential for tackling major agricultural challenges related to food security, climate change, and sustainability.

“The original ban on genome editing by the European Court of Justice in 2018 caused widespread dismay and was out of line with mainstream scientific opinion, both in Europe and the rest of the world.  Interestingly, EU agriculture ministers have now required the ECJ ban to be reconsidered by April 2021, and there might be new developments by then.  Meanwhile, it is important that the UK moves quickly to forge an independent, evidence-based policy on genome editing and other genetic technologies for the benefit of farmers and wider society.”


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

“We welcome the DEFRA consultation on gene editing. The James Hutton Institute is pioneering new ways of plant breeding and uses GM and gene editing to help understand how to do this better. We are interested in a wide range of crop traits including those that might be seen as public-good traits such as reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers, pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, and gene editing is an important tool to help deliver the crops needed for the future.”


Dr Janneke Balk, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, said:

“In my view GE and GM are very closely related techniques, and could be equally beneficial for crop improvement.  GE allows for making precise, targeted changes to the DNA of a crop, whereas GM usually means introducing a larger piece of DNA, like one or two genes.

“In my lab, we have introduced an altered wheat gene into wheat to increase the nutritional iron levels (biofortification). It is GM, but with minimal changes to the DNA of the plant. GE opens up more ways of achieving the same thing (more iron). At the moment we are not using GE because it is still technically challenging. Also, to make GE work, another gene needs to be introduced as well, which can be later removed by outcrossing. So GE goes through a stage where it is GM, then the GE mechanism kicks in, and the transgene is removed after the desired editing has taken place.”


Prof Bruce Whitelaw, Prof of Animal Biotechnology and Interim Director of The Roslin Institute, said:

“Genome editing technology has come far in the few years since its emergence to become a robust and versatile tool to both increase our ability to understand biology and develop innovative applications.

“To allow society to reap benefits from the opportunities that genome editing technology offers, constructive and open dialogue and regulatory process are needed.”


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

“We need food and agriculture but we also need it to stop it harming the planet!  A combination of better land management and better crops can do that. In its simplest form, gene editing is merely a speedier way to find the genetic variation made by natural processes.  I applaud the government’s initiative to consult on the use and regulation of this important new breeding method for agriculture. It is important to get public buy-in to transparent and proportionate frameworks for its safe use in future sustainable farming and food systems.”



Declared interests

Prof Whitelaw: My research is funded by the BBSRC and other public funding agencies. I have no financial links to companies involved in developing or using genome editing technology.

Prof Murphy: I have no interests to declare

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 BB/CSP1730/1 2017 – 2022.  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.”

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

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.  He received his Ph.D from the Plant Breeding Institute and Cambridge University in 1980, conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard, and then worked at an early agbiotech startup, AGS in California, from 1983-8.  Since 1988, Jones worked at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (, funded by David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation.  He was Head of Sainsbury Laboratory 1994-7, 2003- 2009, and Professor at University of East Anglia since 1997.  He was elected to EMBO in 1998, FRS in 2003 and Foreign Associate of US National Academy of Sciences in 2015.

Jones is cofounder of and former science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology, and also 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 and the science advisory board of the 2Blades foundation (  He has contributed to advice to governments and international boards on GM crops (,

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating 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.  One blight resistance gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (

See also”

Prof Napier: “I have no conflicts to declare.  I am running the one of the two UK’s field trials of genome-edited plants, but I had no role in the approval of that trial.”

Prof Talbot: “I personally receive no funding or consultancies with companies. Funding is from Gatsby Charitable Foundation, BBSRC-UKRI, GCRF and The Leverhulme Trust.  The Sainsbury Laboratory has collaborative agreements and funded research projects with a range of companies, including Bayer, BASF, Corteva and others, including SMEs, as well as charities such as the 2Blades Foundation, The Moore Foundation and others.”

None others received.

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