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Genetically-Edited Crops Planted in the UK for the First Time

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Farmers and growers around the globe will be waiting for the results of the first UK field trial of gene-edited super-crops with interest, following the government's surprise decision to allow field planting of Camelina oilseed crops which have been gene-edited (GE) so they produce Omega 3 fish oils.

Omega 3 fish oils are highly popular food supplements in the UK, used to reduce blood pressure and benefit heart health. Dwindling fish stocks in oceans around the globe mean shortages of Omega 3 fish oils are increasingly likely.

About this GE trial

This pilot GE study received Defra approval because it relates to GE plants, opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops. There are no traces of foreign DNA within the Camelina oilseed plants which are being trialled. The plants were altered by scientific manipulation of their genetic coding, which is something that could possibly occur within the natural environment.

Gene-editing is breakthrough technology which scientists state will reduce the time taken for engineering new plants considerably. Previously, creating new plants could take decades, but these techniques reduce this time to a matter of months. The Camelina oilseed plants offer a valuable and sustainable way for the UK to continue to benefit from Omega 3 fish oils in the face of depleting fish stocks.

Legality of GE crops

The European Court of Justice is currently making a decision on whether or not GE plants should be classed as conventional crops in the EU, however, Defra has pre-empted this ruling. It's possible that the EU court decision will require GE crops to be regulated, similar to GM legislation.

The UK trial is being conducted at the Rothamsted research facility located in Hertfordshire, and a team of French scientists will be collaborating during the study. The French government has already banned growing GE crops in fields in France.

Arguments for and against this GE crop trial

George Eustice, Defra minister, made the following comments in a parliamentary statement in March 2018: "Where gene editing results in an organism with DNA from a different species it will be regulated under the controls for genetically modified organisms. However, the government's view is that specific regulation of this technology is not required where the induced genetic change could have occurred naturally or been achieved through traditional breeding methods."

However, Liz O'Neil, director of the GM Freeze campaign group commented: "Instead of putting public health and the environment first, Defra has handed out a free pass to plant highly experimental genetically engineered crops in open fields without a proper risk assessment."

The growth of crops that have been genetically modified will still be banned and previous pilots have resulted in a variety of protests.

The science of GE technologies

GE allows scientists to change genes far more quickly than conventional methodology allows, and Professor Napier who is leading the trial at the Rothamsted centre says that: "GE removes that bottleneck. That’s the benefit."

In actuality, the method used to create these GE Camelinas did entail use of GM technology, however, as the resulting plants don't contain any foreign DNA they are exempt from being classed as GM and have been treated as a conventional crop by Defra. In the initial stages, a protein from a totally different species (algae) was introduced into the Camelina plants to create the fish oil. This transgene has since been removed from the resultant plant, which is why it is classed as GE. Further laboratory trials are being conducted on the GM versions of the plants. The scientists conducting the trial hope to achieve greater understanding of the plants' metabolism via these experiments, with a view to a potential combination of the two different plants to increase their ability to produce fish oils. Professor Napier said: "Both [GE and GM] technologies could have a huge impact on the sustainable intensification of agriculture for the benefit of all."

GE crops likely in a number of countries around the globe

A number of countries have already indicated that GE crops will not be required to meet stringent GM regulations, just so long as they have no traces of foreign DNA. While Europe awaits the judgement on whether or not GE crops will be acceptable for growing in the bloc, the US, Argentina, Canada and Brazil have all indicated their willingness to proceed further with crops of this nature. The European court's advocate general, Michal Bobek has, however, already indicated his view that GE crops are likely to be exempt from GM-style regulations so long as they do not contain any form of recombinant nucleic acid molecules or any type of GM organisms.

Reactions to GE techniques

Scientists and spokespeople from the biotech sector are strongly in favour of GE alterations as they say these could all occur in the natural environment by way of evolution, however critics of the science note that these plants are all initially created via genetic manipulations and mutations within laboratories and are, therefore, artificial by definition.

Around 15 years of research has gone into the technology used in the Rothamsted project, as well as the oil bearing property of the Camelina plant. Professor Nigel Halford is a senior crop scientist at the centre and commented: "We desperately need this because of all the investment that has gone into it. If not, the new technology will be done in the US, Canada and Argentina but not here. It’s really important."

Benefits of Omega 3 fish oils

Fish oil is a valuable health supplement that's in frequent use. It boosts heart health by way of cutting blood pressure and the triglyceride fats within the blood. This helps prevent a build up of plaques, cuts abnormal rhythms of the heart and increases levels of good cholesterol in the bloodstream.

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