LONDON (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)