Following a consultation held by Defra earlier this year, the Government has announced plans to reform the regulation of genome-edited organisms, beginning with plants and then extending to animals and microbes at a later date. The proposals include removing a layer of regulation, paving the way for the introduction of genome-edited plants, and later animals, into the UK food and farming system.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is currently concluding an in-depth inquiry into the social and ethical issues raised by breeding technologies involving genome editing and their use in farmed animals - the final report and recommendations are due to be published later this year. As part of this inquiry we commissioned a rapid online dialogue with members of the public, providing an opportunity for people to explore the implications that adopting such technologies might hold for farmed animals, the food system and society more generally.

A key finding of the dialogue is that the public seem less concerned about the nature and safety of the technology itself, than how it would be used, for what purpose, and in whose interests. The public recognised the risk of the science racing ahead of the regulation, and accordingly they wanted to regulatory approaches for genome editing technologies to be well-aligned with ensuring benefits to animals, society and the wider environment.

Responding to the announcement from George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Danielle Hamm, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:

"We welcome the Government’s announcement that it will not move with undue haste towards the introduction of genome edited organisms to farms and food systems, following its consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies held earlier this year. We believe that the Government is right to recognise that genome editing of animals, in particular, raises ethical issues that need to be addressed carefully. We welcome the Government’s full commitment to high animal welfare standards and to improving them in line with research, and to seeking opportunities to engage in public dialogue.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics held a rapid public dialogue this summer as part of an inquiry into the ethics of genome editing in farmed animals. We found that while members of the public recognise that there are potential benefits of genome editing for farming, they are concerned that some applications may benefit producers at the expense of animal welfare. For this reason, they found the presentation of genome editing technologies in animals as an extension of current selective breeding practices a matter of concern rather than a reassurance.

The findings of our public dialogue have informed a major Nuffield Council on Bioethics inquiry, a report of which will be published later this year. This will make recommendations to help secure responsible research and innovation in animal breeding. In order to explore further how governance of genome editing in farmed animals can support animal welfare and public benefit, the Nuffield Council is partnering with UKRI-BBSRC and Sciencewise to develop a more extensive public dialogue, which will be launched in Autumn 2021. We hope this will contribute to the Government’s regulatory review and to developing a broader policy context that supports a sustainable and ethical future for livestock farming in Britain."