You may have heard that the UK Government is taking steps towards new legislation on gene editing paving the way for genetically edited plants and animals to be grown and raised for food in England.
Given the strong public interest in food technologies, early, open and informed dialogue with the public is important in anticipation of the future introduction of genome editing into our food system. The British Nutrition Foundation is therefore delighted to be involved in an advisory group chaired by Sarah Mukherjee MBE for the development of a new public dialogue on genome editing in farmed animals. This public dialogue, commissioned by BBSRC, Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Science wise, is expected to make a significant contribution to the development of public policy and help shape the next generation of genetic technologies.
What is genome editing and how might this technology lead to potential nutritional benefits?
Genome editing (also called gene editing) is the precise targeted alteration of a DNA sequence in a living cell. Genome editing has been suggested as one way of helping famers to grow crops or rear livestock that are more resistant to disease, and more productive, which could be one of the many ways to address current concerns about climate change and food security.
It has also been suggested that gene editing could be a useful technique in increasing the nutritional value of the foods in our diet. We’re still learning about the potential benefits, but it could, for example, be used be used to modify gluten in wheat allowing people living with coeliac disease to consume gluten-containing foods or used to improve micronutrient content. This could be of particular public health benefit where the population has low intake or status of certain micronutrients.
However, understandably people may be unsure or concerned about new food technologies. Safety risk to humans was one of the top concerns about genome edited foods reported by the public in a 2021 survey by the Food Standards Agency, which found that people were also concerned about animal welfare and the transparent labelling of foods that are made with genome edited ingredients. The survey found people were often confusing genome edited foods with genetically modified or GM foods.
It is important to note that gene editing is not the same as GM, where DNA from a different species has been introduced into another contain genes from another species. Gene editing does not generally contain DNA from different species but makes the same type of changes to plants and animals that may occur through traditional breeding where desirable traits are selected. With gene editing though this can be done much more quickly and precisely.
Currently in the UK, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and are subject to strict safety regulation, assessment and labelling regulations before they can be used. The UK Government, in line with recent international developments in this area, has started to look at changing regulations on gene editing, whilst still adhering to safety standards that apply to protect nutrition, health or the environment.
As the government progresses with this legislation, public dialogue provides an important opportunity to explore different perspectives and identify concerns around this emerging technology, which will help ensure that policies are aligned with public interests. We are pleased that our Science Director, Sara Stanner, is part of the oversight group which will have a crucial role in shaping the dialogue.
If you are interested in finding out more about genome editing, read our quick guide or watch a short talk below.
A quick guide to genome editing, what it is and how does it work
Ewen Trafford, British Nutrition Foundation
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