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Genetic modification

Genetic modification (GM) is a biotechnology that is being used to make new products, in particular new types of crop plant.

In global terms the use of GM crops has increased steadily since the first commercial plantings in North America in the late 1990s. By 2014 about 18 million farmers in 28 countries were growing GM crops on 181 million hectares, which is 13% of the world’s arable land.

No GM crops are being grown commercially in the UK, but imported GM commodities, especially soya, are being used mainly for animal feed, and to a lesser extent in some food products.

See how GM plants are created.

Our policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

The protection of human health and the environment are our overriding priorities.

We’ll only agree to the planting of GM crops, the release of other types of GM organism, or the marketing of GM food or feed products, if a robust risk assessment indicates that it is safe for people and the environment. GM product applications should be assessed for safety on a case-by-case basis, taking full account of the scientific evidence.

We’ll ensure consumers are able to exercise choice through clear GM labelling rules and the provision of suitable information, and will listen to public views about the development and use of the technology.

We support farmers having access to developments in new technology and being able to choose whether or not to adopt them. If and when GM crops are grown in England commercially, we will implement pragmatic and proportionate measures to segregate these from conventional and organic crops, so that choice can be exercised and economic interests appropriately protected.

We recognise that GM technology could deliver benefits providing it is used safely and responsibly, in particular as one of a range of tools to address the longer term challenges of global food security, climate change, and the need for more sustainable agricultural production. Developing countries should have fair access to such technology and make their own informed decisions regarding its use.

To encourage innovation, fair market access for safe products and economic growth, the government believes that regulation of this technology must be proportionate.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) leads on the environmental safety of GMOs and wider issues surrounding the use of GM crop technology.

The Food Standards Agency leads on the safety of GM food and feed and on applications to market GM food and feed products.

The regulatory regime

Anyone who wants to release a GM organism or market a GM product has to get formal authorisation before doing so. Applications for approval to market a product (including crop seeds for cultivation, foods or feeds) are assessed and decided upon at EU level, while applications to release a GM organism for research and development purposes are considered at national level. For more information see previous release applications and consents in the UK.

The assessment process for GM release or marketing applications considers potential safety factors such as toxicity, allergenicity, and the fate of any possible transfer of novel genes to other organisms. Applicants have to provide a dossier of relevant information to cover these points, and this is scrutinised by our committee of independent experts, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

The European Food Safety Authority plays a central role in assessing applications for EU approval to market GM products. In the UK, ministers are given expert scientific advice on the safety of proposals to cultivate GM crops or release other types of GMO (eg GM vaccines in a clinical trial) by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

EU law also requires any approved GM products to be clearly labelled, including foods derived from GM crops that do not have a detectable GM content.

GM crop seeds, foods and animal feeds cannot be marketed without prior authorisation. Applications for authorisation are evaluated and decided upon at an EU level. However, in January 2015 the European Parliament agreed a change to EU law. This will allow individual Member States to decide whether to accept the planting of EU-approved GM crops in their own country. After approval by the Council of Ministers this change is expected to come into force in the spring or summer of 2015. Applications to release a GM organism into the environment for research purposes (such as a GM crop trial) are considered by individual countries. For more information see previous consents for trial releases in England.

On 16 March 2015 the EU Regulatory Committee will consider an application by Florigene to import, into the EU, cut carnation flowers which have been modified for petal colour and herbicide tolerance. We have published a summary of the UK’s views on this application.

Relevant legislation

The main legislation on the release or marketing of GMOs and GM products is listed below. Other legislation may have a bearing on work with GMOs and applicants need to ensure that they comply with all the relevant regulations.

EU legislation

EU Directive 2001/18/EC sets out procedures for considering applications to release GMOs into the environment for research or commercial purposes.

Food and Feed Regulation 1829/2003 creates a specific harmonised procedure for the scientific assessment and authorisation of GM food and feed products. It also requires labelling of all GM food and feed which contains or consists of GMOs, is produced from GMOs (like glucose syrup from GM maize), or contains ingredients produced from GMOs (eg tomato paste, lecithin from GM soya, which is used as an emulsifier in chocolate bars).

Traceability and labelling regulation 1830/2003 (PDF 120 KB) sets out EU requirements for a document audit trail to account for and identify approved GM products throughout the marketing chain, with the aim of facilitating accurate labelling.

UK legislation

Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA) is the primary legislation that gives the Defra Secretary of State general powers and responsibilities to control the deliberate release of GMOs in England, and to implement Directive 2001/18.

Genetically Modified (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002 supplements the EPA by setting out detailed rules for the implementation of Directive 2001/18, including specific requirements for applications to release GMOs.

Regulations 1829/2003 and 1830/2003 are implemented in England through the following regulations:

Similar regulations have been implemented in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.