Comment: Why I’m optimistic about the possibilities for gene editing

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

At the time of writing the requirement to house poultry flocks is to be removed across Great Britain (GB) from midnight on 31 March. An announcement for flocks in Northern Ireland is to be made in the coming days. What this means is that flocks in both GB and Northern Ireland will not therefore go past ‘16 weeks’ and therefore there will be no need to label FR egg packs with the agreed roundel. This is excellent and much welcome news, as otherwise there could have been considerable problems.

We have worked closely with Defra, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and DAERA over recent months and with high standards of biosecurity on farm, combined with housing of flocks (since 14 December 2020 across GB and 23 December in NI) been able to keep nearly all poultry flocks safe.

Whilst the housing element is to be removed, the remaining provisions of the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone, notably biosecurity, will remain in place for a few more weeks. The risk from wild birds continues to decrease (now at ‘Medium’) as bird migration gets underway and they leave the UK towards their summer breeding grounds, but there remains a risk to poultry flocks from infected indigenous birds.

Poultry and captive bird keepers should be vigilant for any signs of disease in their birds and seek advice from their vet if they have any concerns, as it is always better to check whenever in doubt. If the industry follows these steps, and stays alert, we can further reduce any future risk from AI.

It is vital that everyone throughout the supply chain always maintains the highest possible standards of biosecurity.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has recently responded to the UK Government’s consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies. We emphasised that UK consumers have historically been resistant to genetically modified (GM) foods in the UK, and any change would need to be led by a national conversation, especially when it comes to informing the public on the differences between GM and genetically edited (GE). Even though they were treated the same in a landmark decision by EU judges on what is and what is not a GM food, scientifically they are not.

The UK Government needs to be aware that any deregulation of the rules around governing GM and GE foods could result in significant trade restrictions on a whole range of foods, both fresh and processed. We further emphasized that with the devolved nature of agricultural policy across the four nations of the UK, there is likely to be UK internal market issues. For example, the Scottish Government has a firm position against GM foods, as well as the fact that Northern Ireland is effectively outside of the UK internal market as part of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

However, we are optimistic about future opportunities to deploy this technology against specific issues for specific species. We remain of the opinion that this should be tightly regulated. Approvals should be granted under a tightly controlled regulatory framework, on a case-by-case basis and in a way that provides extensive testing into the gene edit and the benefits claimed. It should also provide a system of traceability and registration. If this framework is not in place, then we should continue under the existing GM legislation until specific GE legislation is developed and scrutinised by the relevant legislative bodies.

It is also important to coordinate the development of this legislation with the devolved administrations of the UK, and if there is one thing we need to avoid, is further disruption between the UK and the EU when it comes to agricultural goods.

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