The Farming Social Hub - a voice for the farming community

Gene editing – a misunderstood tool in the fight against global food issues

In recent years any reference to gene modification would inspire gasps of horror and imaginings of Frankenstein-like mutations of fruit, vegetables and livestock.

Which is why the news that a Genetic Technology Bill has just received its first reading in Parliament has raised a few eyebrows and caused consternation among many organisations. 

The Bill aims to permit genetic modification in UK food production through a method known as gene editing. Under this process, some of the genetics contained within a type of fruit or vegetable can be introduced to another plant of the same species. 

At first glance the Frankenstein analogy rings true. Why are we messing with nature is the cry. The RSPCA is concerned that the legislation will extend over time to include farm livestock and the organisation is concerned that there are too many unknowns about the impact of this technology for it to be used on animals and poultry. 

The Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) group has also expressed serious concern over the decision by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to introduce the bill. 

‘The rushing through of this bill, without rigorous regulation is an alarming development, especially at this time,’ says Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G. 

‘It fails to protect consumer choice and neglects to consider the potential for long term damage to the environment and the rural economy. 

‘It also flies in the face of public opinion that in 2021 revealed that the public was 80% against deregulating the use of experimental GM techniques.’

A closer look at the ideas behind gene editing however, reveal that it is a technology that can be used to combat some of the most pressing issues of the times.

By editing the genes within varieties of the same species, scientists and growers would be able to produce fruit and vegetables with higher levels of disease resistance, more drought-tolerant plants, plants with higher levels of vitamins – one such example is tomatoes with enhanced Vitamin D properties. 

The critical difference between gene editing and gene modification is that gene editing is a form of selective breeding, as it takes the most desirable traits from its own species, whereas gene modification introduces genes from other species – at the most exaggerated level, think egg-laying sheep. 

By producing crops that produce a higher yield, rely less on fertiliser or pesticides and are able to cope with extreme climatic conditions, this is an example of science and technology working with agriculture to feed the world more efficiently. 

Of course this is not the whole solution. Farmers across the world still need to look at ways of producing food while maintaining and improving the soil and environment. Governments still need to look at food strategies that focus on healthy and sustainable diets. Gene editing is one part of a jigsaw of solutions in the way we tackle global food production.