The pros and cons of gene-editing food
Technique could increase food security but there are concerns about labelling
The production of gene-edited crops is to be accelerated to help safeguard food supplies for Britain in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.
The Telegraph reported that ministers are expected to introduce a bill that will allow farms to grow more crops by planting variants that have been edited to be more resistant to disease.
The prospect of gene-edited food on British supermarket shelves has proved controversial. Here’s why.
Pro: food security amid war
Amid anxiety over the UK’s self-sufficiency, food security has become a growing concern during the conflict in Ukraine. Moscow’s blockades in the country are preventing the export of key goods such as wheat, leading to rising food prices and global shortages.
Britain is “heavily reliant” on food imports, said The Telegraph, but the bill would “remove unnecessary barriers inherited from the EU” to gene-editing as well as boosting food production in the UK. Professor Gideon Henderson, a scientific adviser to the government, told The Guardian that gene editing could “increase food security” for the UK.
Con: public acceptance
The public appetite for genome-edited food is dependent on “perceptions of risks and benefits”, said a briefing for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post). Although the perception of risk is “often said to be lower for genome editing than modification” it found that “polarised debates” on the issue foods may “increase public disquiet”.
Education will be key because, it added, “surveys and textual analyses” have found that consumers have a “low level of knowledge of genome editing”.
Pro: resistance to disease
Worldwide, an estimated 20 to 40% of crop yield is lost to pests and diseases, said the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI). The government believes that gene editing will lead to crops that are resistant to pests and diseases, said the BBC.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told The Telegraph that “precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of crops that have a natural resistance to diseases”.
Con: traceability for consumers
The government is planning to allow gene-edited products to be sold without labels despite a survey last year by the Food Standards Agency that found most consumers wanted them to be labelled “genome edited”.
Bright Blue, a Conservative think tank, has called for greater transparency in labelling and said that consumers should not be “tricked”, said The Times. The parliamentary briefing called for an international public registry of all commercial agricultural biotechnology products, including genome editing.
Pro: greater nutrition
Gene-editing could be used to create more nutritious crops, such as vitamin D-enriched tomatoes. Earlier this week, scientists announced that they have created genetically edited tomatoes, each containing as much provitamin D3 – the precursor to vitamin D – as two eggs.
Guy Poppy, a professor of ecology at the University of Southampton, told Food Navigator that “gene-editing tomatoes to accumulate provitamin D3 at levels above recommended dietary guidelines could result in better health for many”.
Con: animal suffering
The Guardian noted that the government bill will also allow for similar changes for livestock gene-editing to follow. Although such changes would be dependent on a regulatory system to safeguard animal welfare, there are concerns that its development could reinforce the use of factory farming.
Kierra Box, of Friends of the Earth, told The Guardian that gene editing “focuses on altering the genetic code of plants and animals to deal with the problems caused by poor soils, the over-use of pesticides and intensive farming”.