The Oxford Farming Conference 2021 last week featured all of the ministers responsible for agriculture policy in the four UK nations.

Last year the Government set out the direction of travel for agriculture in England. So George Eustice, unlike the other three ministers, was free to focus on a subject of his choosing, and his chosen subject was gene editing.

Several years ago OFC attendees were treated to a highly scientific explanation of gene editing. This was different. A policy line is being proposed, dividing gene editing (moving traits within a single species) from genetic modification (moving traits across species). The Secretary of State referred to gene editing as “ a natural evolution of conventional approaches to plant breeding”. 

What most of us regarded as a single thing – GMO – is being redefined into two things - GMO and GE - one of which may be acceptable to policy makers and consumers even if the other isn’t.

Mr Eustice then explained the benefits of gene edited species by referring to plants with more resistance to fungal diseases and plants which require fewer inputs (eg water). 

What might have been regarded as a dangerously unnatural scientific process, the benefit of which was to feed the world, may in reality be a small extension to a natural process, one key purpose of which is to help tackle climate change.

Fact or spin? In the end the Government will decide but you might have a part to play through the consultation launched by DEFRA on 7 January. 

Alastair Morrison