Technology to “edit” the genes of plants and animals could be allowed in England to help make farming more sustainable, Environment Secretary George Eustice has said.

A consultation on the future regulations of gene editing has been launched at the Oxford Farming Conference by Mr Eustice, who says current rules have stifled the technology’s potential.

Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animals much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding which has been used for centuries to create stronger, healthier crops and livestock.

Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and genetic modification (GM), in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.

But following an EU ruling in 2018, it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms.

Mr Eustice told the online conference: “Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions, based on science and evidence.

“And it starts today with a new consultation on proposed changes to English law to enable gene editing to take place, so that we can achieve a simpler, scientifically credible framework to govern important new technologies.

“If we are to deliver the ambitions we have for the environment and make space for nature, we must rebalance the incentives in our future agricultural policy to encourage sustainability.

Whitchurch Herald: Gene editing is the process of removing an undesirable gene in order to improve the performance of an organismGene editing is the process of removing an undesirable gene in order to improve the performance of an organism

“But we must also use the tools that science provides to ensure that profitable food production and sustainability go hand in hand.”

He said gene editing gave scientists the power to evolve plant varieties with particular traits far faster than was possible with conventional breeding, which “opens up huge opportunities to change our approach and embrace sustainable farming”.

He said: “It creates the potential to breed plant varieties that have natural resistance to fungal diseases and to evolve traits at a pace that keeps up with the evolving pest.

“It creates the ability to breed crops and grasses that perform better with fewer inputs, reducing costs to farmers and reducing impacts on the environment, and it creates the ability to breed plants that can adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

Mr Eustice added that it would always be important to have a “robust and precautionary” regulatory system for managing genetic modification.

Under the consultation, the rules could be changed in England to stop gene editing organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding techniques.

It could see them regulated in the same way as conventional crops and livestock, allowing the use of gene editing for new produce.

The consultation will also begin a longer-term project to gather evidence on updating the approach to genetic modification, officials said.

Gene editing could make crops and livestock more resistant to pests or disease, cutting the need for pesticides and improving welfare, or develop food to have healthier impacts such as lowering blood pressure or reducing the risk of cancer.

It could also increase productivity which could free up land for rewilding and tree planting to meet wildlife and climate goals, officials said.

Scientists welcomed the consultation, but some environmentalists said the technology was new and untested and held risks for people and the environment.

If gene-edited produce is allowed for cultivation in England, the devolved administrations could decide to prevent them being produced in their countries, but they could not prevent the sale of products using gene editing elsewhere in the UK.

Environment ministers from Wales and Scotland said at the Oxford Farming Conference that they took a different approach to genetic modification.

Welsh environment, energy and rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths flagged concerns over the health and safety implications of gene editing, and Scotland’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said they had reservations about the process, and it would be sensible to wait for the outcome of a review being taken.