Tomatoes that boost the body’s vitamin D could be among the first genetically modified crops allowed for sale in England.
Norwich researchers created the plants by turning off a specific molecule in their genetic code.
A bill will be introduced on Wednesday to allow the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops in England.
The technique is not currently used for food production in the UK due to rules set by the EU, but Brexit allowed the UK to set its own rules.
One in six people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D, which is essential for strong bones and muscles and helps reduce the risk of cancer.
Professor Cathie Martin, who led the research at the John Innes Centre, said the development, published in Nature Plants, could be hugely beneficial.
“With humans, half an hour in the sun every day is enough to make enough vitamin D. But a lot of people don’t have that time outdoors and that’s why they need supplements. Tomatoes themselves- themselves could provide another source of vitamin D in their diet.”
If government legislation is successfully passed by Parliament, vitamin-rich fruit could be among the first GM crops allowed on supermarket shelves in England.
Gene editing is a relatively new technology. It is a question of activating and deactivating genes by taking a small part of the DNA of the plant. The ancient technique of genetic modification involves introducing genes, sometimes from completely different species.
EU restrictions mean that both methods have effectively been banned in Europe for a quarter of a century.
Both methods are used in other countries to produce food. But the EU established strict regulations on GM crops 25 years ago due to safety concerns and public opposition to the technology. Genetically modified crops are covered by the same regulations.
The UK is currently following European Union regulations on both technologies.
Any new GM or GM crop must undergo a scientific safety assessment, which can take around five years. Plant breeders believe this is too onerous and costly and therefore do not invest in the technology in Europe. In addition, any new variety that passes EU safety tests must then be approved by a majority in the European Parliament.
Breeders believe that political opposition is too strong for the approval of new GM or GM varieties. The regulations, according to the plant industry, have effectively prevented the commercial production of genetically modified foods in Europe.
The UK government has decided that gene editing is safe to use and is due to introduce a bill on Wednesday to allow its commercial development in England. GMO regulations will not be relaxed at this stage.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told BBC News the change to the law was needed to tackle the impact of climate change.
“The reality is that we are going to need more drought resistant plants and as we try to reduce the use of chemical pesticides, we need to cultivate the natural resistance of plants to diseases and this precision breeding technology gives you the ability to do that; it gives you the ability to change a plant’s traits faster than you could through conventional breeding, but it’s not the same as genetic modification.”
The development has been welcomed by Nigel Moore of KWS, a plant breeding company in Hertfordshire that produces wheat and barley.
“With the varieties we see in England, it usually takes us 12 years to produce new ones. Thanks to genetic modification, we can react much more quickly to changes in farmers.
For 150 years, KWS has been developing new varieties of wheat and barley for farmers using traditional breeding techniques. Mr Moore says the company needs to use gene editing to produce the new varieties that farmers demand.
“If we think about the rate of change: climate change, the need to reduce nitrogen fertilizers, the need to use fewer pesticides; the faster we get the genetic changes we need, the faster we are able to adapt. to all this changing world that surrounds us”.
Critics of the technology, such as Liz O’Neill, who is the director of the campaign group, GM Freeze, say the government is lifting restrictions on genetically modified crops too quickly.
“Mistakes happen. Other changes can be made. Genetics is not like Lego. It’s a new set of techniques, and it’s developed very quickly, which means there’s a huge things that could go wrong.
The process involves putting genetic material in, in order to take it out, and there is a deliberate oversimplification in describing the process so that people feel comfortable.”
Ms O’Neill also wonders how the easing of regulations, which only applies to England, will not happen in other parts of the UK, which will make their own decisions about the use of technology.
“The food chain doesn’t just work in England. It works across the UK. Who is going to stop GM food from getting into food in Scotland and Wales?
Customers want an informed choice and can only get it if GMOs in the food chain are traceable.”
KWS’ Nigel Moore responds by saying that new varieties of GM crops are tested to ensure that they do not contain new DNA before they are approved for use and that a number of scientific assessments have found that gene-editing technology was safe.
He also believes GM foods grown in England won’t end up in other parts of the UK.
“Agricultural supply chains are already very good at meeting brand requirements such as gluten-free and organic foods to very high standards.”
The Scottish government has long opposed GM crops. Their argument is that they want to protect the ‘purity’ of the Scottish food and drink sector. But it is now direct opposition to NFU Scotland who say it puts Scottish farmers at a disadvantage.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We have no intention of revising the existing regulations on the deliberate release of GMOs in Wales and will maintain our precautionary approach to genetic modification.
The cultivation of GM crops in Northern Ireland was banned along with Scotland and Wales in 2015, and it was then said that this decision would stand for the foreseeable future.
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