CHINA – China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has published new regulations for the approval of gene-edited plants, amid a raft of measures aimed at overhauling the country’s seed industry, which is seen as a weak link in efforts to ensure national food security.

The draft rules stipulate that once gene-edited plants have completed pilot trials, a production certificate can be applied for, skipping the lengthy field trials required for the approval of a genetically modified plant.

That means it could take only a year or two to get approval for a gene-edited plant, said Han Gengchen, Chairman of seed company Origin Agritech, compared with around six years for GM ones.

China’s leadership said in late 2020 that the country needed to use science and technology for an urgent “turnaround” of its seed industry, which has long struggled with overcapacity and little innovation.

Gene editing is a newer technology that is seen as less risky than genetic modification by some scientists because it does not involve adding any foreign genes to a plant. In its place, scientists ‘edit’ or alter genes already in a plant to improve or change its performance, aiming for better yields or increased nutrients.

The technology’s precision makes it much faster than conventional breeding or genetic modification, and also lowers the cost. Regulation is also less cumbersome in some countries such as the United States, although the European Union is still reviewing how to regulate the technology.

“This really opens the door for plant breeding. It’s an infinite opportunity to improve crops more precisely and much more efficiently,” said Han.

China has also recently passed new regulations that set out a clear path for approval for genetically modified (GM)crops. But while it has deliberated for years whether to allow planting of GM crops to feed its people and livestock, it is ahead of some nations in outlining clear and relatively fast procedures for gene-edited crops.

While Beijing is expected to allow the planting of GM corn as early as this year, it may soon promote gene-edited crops too.

According to Dutch multinational banking and financial services company Rabobank, the country’s research institutes have already published more research on market-oriented gene-edited crops than any other country.

“Given the strong investment of the Chinese government in genome editing, we expect the release of a relatively open policy in the coming years,” it said in a recent report.

Chinese researchers have used gene-editing to create lettuce seeds rich in vitamin C and herbicide-resistant rice, according to a Global Times report. The country imports a significant share of its vegetable seeds hence it seeks to reduce its reliance on overseas breeding.

UK to permit gene-editing

Following suite is the United Kingdom (UK) which has announced through the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that new legislation will be implemented to cut the unnecessary red tape for gene editing.

This is to assist farmers have access to more resilient, nutritious, and productive crops. It also grants permission to UK scientists to conduct research and development more easily using genetic technologies for plants.

The Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation, Jo Churchill, noted that new genetic technologies could help the kingdom tackle some of the biggest challenges of their age – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Now we have the freedom and opportunity to foster innovation, to improve the environment and help us grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change. I am grateful to the farming and environmental groups that have helped us shape our approach, and I look forward to seeing what we can achieve,” he said.

According to DEFRA, the new legislation does not mean that environmental or research standards will be lowered. DEFRA also expects that the new rules will pave the way for UK’s target to be a global science superpower by 2030 and position itself as a global leader in sustainable climate-friendly farming.

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