Royal Society calls for evidence-led GM crop regulation

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The UK needs an evidence-led and proportionate regulatory approach for genetically modified (GM) crops to realise the technology’s benefits for human health, agriculture and the environment, according to a new Royal Society policy briefing.

Press Release from the Royal Society

The Enabling genetic technologies for food security briefing, led by Professor Jonathan Jones FRS, Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, sets out recent developments in using the GM method for crop improvement. This has seen the technology used in a growing number of countries to enhance resistance to pests and diseases, improve nutrition and elevate tolerance to heat and drought.

Genetic modification, for the purposes of UK crop regulation, involves moving genes between species and is regulated differently to other breeding technologies which make genetic changes within a species.

The UK’s leading plant scientists and expertise in commercial crop breeding mean it is well placed to deliver the benefits of deploying this technology. Discoveries made by UK scientists have already been commercialised in other countries, but not in the UK. A more supportive regulatory approach in the UK would boost innovation and result in new applications of GM methods that benefit the British public and global food security.

Earlier this year, the UK government has already sought to reduce regulatory barriers to genetic innovation for agriculture by passing the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which introduced a new framework in England for regulating crops that were gene edited.

However, the Act left GM crops under a regulatory regime inherited from the EU which has usually required extensive scientific and safety trials. Satisfying these requirements is so expensive that only the largest companies can achieve regulatory approval.

The Royal Society briefing argues this approach is no longer justified given the evidence from 30 years of commercial use that crops developed with GM methods are no more likely to pose unpredictable risks than crops resulting from other breeding technologies. Instead, regulation should focus on assessing scientifically plausible risks given what is known about the GM trait and the species it was introduced into.

In adopting this approach, the UK can learn from other regulators that have greater experience with GM technology, such as the US. To support greater innovation, the US Department of Agriculture recently reformed the way it assesses environmental risks from GM crops such that crop developers do not need to invest in extensive risk assessment if there is no scientific reason to believe that the crop is likely to cause an environmental harm.

The first GM plant approved in the US under its new framework was developed by UK researchers at the John Innes Centre, Norwich: the ‘purple tomatoes’, developed using genes from the snapdragon plant, which have higher concentrations of health-supporting anthocyanins.

These purple (almost indigo) tomatoes are now available to US consumers at select markets and restaurants via the company Norfolk Healthy Produce - a spin-out company co-founded by Jonathan Jones (TSL) and Cathie Martin (JIC)

GM methods enable applications that would not be possible with other methods and could be particularly important for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while providing enough food for a rising population. These methods hold great potential in adapting crops to the pressing challenges posed by climate change, pests, diseases, biodiversity loss and invasive species.

“We need to feed people properly without destroying the planet,” said Professor Jones, whose research spans a range of GM applications, including potatoes resistant to late blight disease, which farmers currently spray 15-20 times a year to control.

“Manufacturing and spraying fertilisers and pesticides results in a significant carbon footprint and collateral damage to non-target insects and the wider ecosystem. Using GM methods, we can replace chemistry with genetics for pest and disease control.

“GM is one arrow in our quiver, but one we cannot afford to spurn. The lesson from countries that have used this technology for 30 years is that its potential risks can be regulated on the basis that they are predictable and specific to the change being made.”

Examples of GM applications being developed in the UK and around the world:

  • Pest and disease resistance – Late blight costs UK potato farmers around £50m a year in crop losses and fungicide treatments. The blight resistant variety of Maris Piper potato developed by The Sainsbury Laboratory contains genes from species in the same Solanum genus as domesticated potatoes and that are already deployed in the US. Other examples include insect resistant aubergines for Bangladesh and the Philippines, insect resistant cowpea in West Africa, tomatoes and potatoes resistant to viruses and bacterial wilt, and wheat resistant to stem rust.
  • Improving yields and reducing fertiliser dependence – Researchers at the Crop Science Centre, Cambridge, are testing GM barley modified with genes from the leguminous plant, Medicago truncatula, that enhance access to soil nutrients through symbiotic association with soil fungi. This could help reduce applications of fertilisers and their environmental impacts on soil and river ecosystems.
  • Adapting to environmental change – A drought resistant wheat variety, modified with a gene from sunflowers, was developed in Argentina and has been approved for cultivation in Brazil and certified safe for human consumption in Australia, Brazil, Columbia, New Zealand, Nigeria and the US.
  • Removing heavy metals or explosive contaminants from soil – In a three-year field trial, the University of York’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, working with the US Department of Defence, demonstrated a genetically modified native grass species (Panicum virgatum) can effectively remediate soils contaminated with explosive residues.


To request interviews with a spokesperson, please contact the Royal Society press office:

Alex Matthews-King
Senior press officer
+44 207 451 2510

Notes to editors

After publication the report will be available on the Royal Society website at –

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

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