Field trials of gene edited wheat
The British government has granted its consent for a series of field trials of gene edited wheat for the first time in Europe, making a significant shift from the EU's position on the issue.

After the approval of the ministry (DEFRA), the trials will be carried out by Rothamsted Research Institute, a pioneer of GM crop trials since the 1990s. The Hertfordshire-based experiments will be the first field trials of CRISPR edited wheat anywhere in the UK or Europe.

The aim of the trial is to produce wheat with a reduced asparagine concentration. The researchers achieved this by switching off the gene involved in the production of asparagine (Raffan et al, 2021). Asparagine is a non-essential amino acid (the human body can synthesize it) that can be found in several foods, including dairy, meat, eggs and plant sources, e.g. asparagus, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and whole grains. Asparagine present in wheat can be converted to acrylamide during baking or toasting.

Acrylamide is a process contaminant, that is also naturally formed when carbohydrate-containing foods are heated at high temperatures (above 120 - 150°C), e.g. during frying, grilling. It is a reaction (Maillard reaction) that results in the "browning" of food and the formation of many flavour components.

In 2015 the EFSA CONTAM Panel published a scientific opinion on acrylamide in food. The experts concluded that current levels of dietary exposure to acrylamide potentially increase the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.

The European Commission has summarised mitigation measures and benchmark levels for the reduction of the presence of acrylamide in food in an EU regulation. Food manufacturers should aim to keep acrylamide levels in their products as low as possible. Consumers can reduce their intake by changing their cooking habits at home and by eating a varied diet.

Based on the results of a study of Spanish adult women, all subjects in the study were exposed to acrylamide. The study analysed urine samples from 120 lactating women aged between 20 and 45 years. The study found that the exposure and risk in the study population is higher than that observed in other European studies in the adult population.

The researchers hope that reducing asparagine concentrations in wheat will benefit consumers by reducing their dietary exposure to acrylamide, while helping food businesses as well, to comply with the regulations on the presence of acrylamide in their products. The project is planned to run over the next five years, ending in 2026, with plants being sown in September and October each year and harvested the following September. Plants and seeds arising from the trial will not enter the food or feed chains.

The project has been criticised by some, stating that the aim of the project was too trivial compared to the risks carried by planting experimental genetically modified crops. Organisms created by altering (modifying or editing) genes may be more resistant or have other advantages. However, there is a risk that their increased resistance could drive other species out of production, contributing to biodiversity loss, not to mention that the long-term effects of their consumption on human health are unknown.

Legal context

The United Kingdom's exit from the European Union (Brexit) has provided an opportunity to review the regulation of organisms produced by genetic technologies, including gene editing. In early 2021, a public consultation was held on the subject, and the main results were published. In the next step, organisms produced by genetic engineering that could have occurred naturally or produced by traditional breeding will probably be exempted from GMO regulation in the UK. In the longer term, the aim might be to get gene edited crops that are equivalent to those produced through traditional breeding onto the market and accepted by the public.

EU stakeholders have previously warned that any divergence from the EU on this issue could jeopardise the future of the UK's agri-food trade relationship with the EU. Under EU law, genetically modified and genetically engineered organisms are subject to the same regulation. However, the perception of gene edited organisms is not uniform within the EU, and some might argue that the EU should also relax its regulation of GMOs. A new study from the European Commission has concluded that the current legal framework governing new genomic techniques (NGTs) is insufficient and indicated that new policy instruments should be considered to reap the benefits of this technology.


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