In his inaugural speech as Prime Minister (PM) in July 2019, Boris Johnson said “let’s liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules.” Also, “let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.” There is a growing sense that the UK needs a considerable degree of freedom in any terms that it negotiates with the European Union (EU).
However, under any scenario, the UK’s departure from the EU (Brexit) will not change policy or trade in genetically engineered plants or animals in the short to medium term. The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner and the UK will retain much EU food law for many years to come.
Brexit has the potential to change many policy areas, including agricultural biotechnology. However, in the short to medium term (1-3 years), the current landscape for cultivation and importation of genetically engineered (GE) products is not expected to alter. The UK will always be mindful of EU import requirements and approvals when setting their own.
Senior UK politicians have consistently spoken out in favor of simple genome editing. However, considering the European Court of Justice ruling on New Plant Breeding Techniques, a mechanism where the UK could legally deviate from the EU regulation is not yet clear.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have “opted-out” of cultivating GE crops that are currently approved or in the pipeline under EU legislation. In theory, this opt-out is on a case-by-case basis. However, it is very unlikely that any of the large multi-national seed technology companies would invest in near-market research and commercialization of a crop that could only be marketed in England, unless perhaps it were wheat.
Even if developers submitted a cultivation application for a GE product for England only, it is hard to gauge whether farmers would ultimately get the chance to plant GE crops. Successful introduction in the UK will depend on the type of product being engineered, the trait benefits, and the intended benefactors.