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England's sugar beet sector needs gene-editing - minister

Tue, 23rd Feb 2021 15:01

LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Gene-editing could play a key
role in England's sugar beet sector, Britain's farming and
environment minister George Eustice said on Tuesday, reiterating
his support for easing regulations covering the technology.

Eustice told the annual conference of the National Farmers
Union that the sugar beet sector has faced major problems this
year with virus yellows which is spread by aphids and can
severely cut beet yields and decrease sugar content.

Gene-editing aims to accelerate changes which might take
place naturally, whereas genetic modification (GM) can involve
the transfer of genetic material from one species to another
which could not occur using conventional breeding techniques.

"A lot of the solution to some of the technical challenges
like virus yellows do lie in using faster more targeted breeding
techniques where you can take a trait that might exist in a non
commercial variety of sugar beet or even a fodder beet and move
it across into sugar beet so you've got natural resistance,"
Eustice said.

"I know that is something the sugar industry is keen to
explore and we want to support them in that."

Agriculture is devolved in the United Kingdom and both
farming ministers in Scotland and Wales have expressed
reservations about plans to ease regulations in England.

Proponents of gene-editing argue the method can be seen as
equivalent to conventional breeding but many times faster and
can limit the use of harmful pesticides.

Gene-editing has been subject to the same regulation in the
European Union as genetic modification but a public consultation
on easing those rules was launched on Jan. 7, just days after
Britain completed its departure from the EU's orbit.

Some environmental groups, however, believe the safety of
the technology has not been established and there could be
resistance among consumers to its use.

Two environmental groups, Beyond GM and Slow Food UK, have
been lobbying supermarkets to refuse to stock unlabelled
gene-edited foods and claimed they already won the support of
one retailer, Co-Op Group.

A spokesman for Co-Op Group, however, said it had no new
policy on gene-editing and was awaiting the outcome of the
government's consultation.

Eustice, when asked about those reports, was critical of
retailers who opposed the technology.

"It is a choice for individual retailers but I do think they
are wrong on this for an important reason. Gene-editing is
really just a more targeted, faster approach to move traits from
one plant to another but within the same species so in that
respect it is no different from conventional breeding," he said.
(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; editing by David Evans)

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