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Norwich scientific leaders sign open letter to Michael Gove over genetically modified crops

PUBLISHED: 14:41 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 09:33 19 September 2018

Crop scientists at Norwich Research Park, including the John Innes Centre, have signed a letter to Defra secretary Michael Gove over a ruling that classifies gene-edited crops as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY.

Crop scientists at Norwich Research Park, including the John Innes Centre, have signed a letter to Defra secretary Michael Gove over a ruling that classifies gene-edited crops as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Picture: ANTONY KELLY.

Archant Norfolk 2018

Leading plant science institutions in Norfolk have joined calls for government to address the implications of a European Union ruling over genetic modifications.

The John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory, the Quadram Institute and Earlham Institute – all on Norwich Research Park – have signed an open letter to Defra secretary Michael Gove, following the decision to class gene-edited crops as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The 33 signatories of the letter include farmer and landowner organisations such as the NFU, research institutions, universities, plant breeders, crop agronomy companies and biotech multinationals.

They want a round-table meeting with Defra to agree a way forward on research and future use of new plant-breeding technologies.

The move follows a ruling in July by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that concluded organisms obtained by newer forms of mutagenesis, such as gene-editing, are GMOs.

Unlike traditional genetic modification – which may involve insertion of foreign DNA into an organism – gene-editing is a group of technologies involving the precise replacement of one DNA sequence with another.

This ruling went against the recommendation to exempt new techniques, made by the EU Advocate General in January.

Other global authorities, such as those in the US and China, consider that they should be treated as bred by conventional techniques.

Prof Wendy Harwood, of the department of crop genetics at the John Innes Centre, said: “The CJEU decision could have major negative impacts on our ability to respond rapidly to the challenges of providing sufficient, nutritious food, under increasingly challenging conditions.”

Prof Nick Talbot, director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, said: “Precise modern gene editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome. To classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.”

Defra’s position is that “gene-edited organisms should not be regulated as GMOs if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods”.

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