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Genetic modification (GM)

A man inspecting a field of rape

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

Under European Union (EU) legislation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including GM crops, can only be released into the environment if a science-based risk assessment shows that safety will not be compromised.

  • Defra is the lead government department on the environmental safety of GMO releases, and also considers 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.

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Key facts

GM normally involves the insertion of genes carrying a specific trait (eg pest resistance) from one organism into another, although other GM techniques are possible. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO).

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.

Two types of GM crop are currently being grown in some EU countries: an insect-resistant maize and a potato with modified starch content for industrial use. Neither of these is relevant or suitable for production in the UK.

Worldwide, in 2009 GM crops were grown by around 14 million farmers in 25 countries. The area grown has increased steadily year-on-year, reaching about 134 million hectares in 2009. This represents 9% of the world’s arable land, an area equivalent to over five times the size of the UK.

Most current GM crops are insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant, to make pest and weed control easier for farmers. The main crop species in which these GM traits have been introduced are soya, maize, cotton and oilseed rape. GM crops with different traits are currently being developed, e.g. drought-resistance, disease-resistance, and crops with enhanced nutritional attributes.

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 (by Defra for proposed releases in England, or by the relevant authorities in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland).

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 then scrutinised by independent scientists.

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 (e.g. GM vaccines in a clinical trial) by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

To ensure consumer choice 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.

Contacting the Defra GM Team

If you have a question about policy on GM or the regulations in this area, or if you want to make an application to release a GM organism in England, please contact the Defra GM Team at the following email address or phone the Defra Helpline on 08459 335577.

Relevant legislation

The key 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. Defra leads on this legislation.

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 (e.g. glucose syrup from GM maize), or contains ingredients produced from GMOs (e.g. tomato paste, lecithin from GM soya for use as an emulsifier in chocolate bars). The Food Standards Agency lead on this legislation.

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. The Food Standards Agency lead on this legislation.

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 by means of the Genetically Modified Food (England) Regulations 2004, the Genetically Modified Animal Feed (England) Regulations 2004 and the Genetically Modified Organisms (Traceability and Labelling) (England) Regulations 2004 (similar Regulations have been implemented in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Copies of these Regulations are available from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO).

Other important links

Page last modified: 31 January 2011

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