UK embraces CRISPR crops

© Brian Bould/

While the European Union still grapples with the political complexity of revising its regulatory framework on GMOs, post-Brexit Britain has already made up its mind. In late March, London passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, with the royal assent and to the delight of British researchers. For those familiar with the history of the GM controversy, this is a momentous event with strong symbolic value.

In fact, the campaign against GMOs exploded across the Channel in the second half of the 1990s. It all started with a small group of protesters from the anarcho-environmentalist galaxy, as recounted by the repentant Mark Lynas in his book Seeds of Science. Then the Frankenfood scandal took over the tabloids and other media, recruiting testimonials such as Paul McCartney and Prince Charles.

The first major junk-science case also broke out in the UK in 1998, with Arpad Pusztai’s killer potatoes; in the U.S. the St Louis Post-Dispatch noted in its headline: “Fear Grows. The epicenter is in England.” Before long the anti-biotech movement became a global phenomenon (in Italy the big debut coincided with the protests at the Biotech Fair in Genoa in 2000). The following is more or less well-known history: the boycotts, the moratorium, the freeze on open field trials.

The aftermath of those years is still being felt, as Italian and European plant geneticists are forced to work in slow motion, under highly restrictive conditions. That Britain has decided to turn over a new page with the arrival of new, more targeted technologies such as CRISPR, is great news that we have been waiting for. First, because UK is pursuing promising research with potentially useful applications for consumer health (here and here are a couple of examples). And then because there’s hope that they can be trend-setters again, this time for the better, and that Brussels will follow, simplifying and streamlining the rules that today, paradoxically, penalize the most advanced technologies.

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