In terms of appearance and taste, it is indistinguishable from a conventional tomato from the weekly market or from the garden. But two medium-sized fruits of the variety that grows in the greenhouses at the John Innes Center in Norwich provide enough vitamin D to meet an adult’s daily requirement.

“For humans, half an hour in the sun a day is enough to produce enough vitamin D. But many people don’t have that time outdoors, so they need supplementation,” says Catherine Martin, professor of plant science and lead scientist on the project.

The fortified tomatoes could fill the vitamin gap and make an important contribution to the health of one billion people worldwide who are underserved.

Of course, the fruit vegetable does not contain any vitamin D. The enrichment of the new variety is thanks to a so-called genome editing, a small change in the DNA of the plant. The researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for the Crispr technology used.

The vitamin tomatoes are not yet commercially available. But that is about to change in England, thanks to a new law that has now been introduced, relaxing the strict rules governing genetic modification of crops.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been pushing for a long time to deviate from the previously applicable regulation based on the EU model and thus exploit one of the advantages of Brexit. “Let’s start now to free the extraordinarily successful life sciences community in Britain from the anti-GM rules and… develop disease-resistant crops that can feed the world,” Johnson said in his first speech as Prime Minister in July 2019.

“We expect that [the law] will make it possible to move purposefully bred crops through the regulatory system much faster, in a time span of about a year, compared to around 10 years under the current rules,” says Gideon Henderson, scientific director at the Ministry of Environment and Food.

Crops that have been optimized through genetic adaptations could soon help to ensure that agricultural yields are less dependent on epidemics and diseases or the consequences of climate change. In the current discussion about significant bottlenecks in the food supply in many regions worldwide, higher yields, less need for fertilizers and resistance to pests are also becoming increasingly important.

The law expressly distinguishes between gene manipulation and genome editing. In the former, genes are inserted into the DNA, which can also come from other varieties or species. The still young technique of genome editing works exclusively with variant genes.

The methods used would mimic optimization through breeding, Henderson explained. However, they can be implemented much more precisely and much faster than would be possible in nature. The methodology promises significant growth potential for the UK, as well as positive environmental benefits, Henderson said.

In a first step, the legislation only applies to plant genome editing. Scientists are hoping for rapid success in making agricultural products more resistant to heat or lack of water. Toxins can also be reduced. The Rothamsted Research lab has already made some advances using genome editing to reduce the level of an amino acid in wheat that becomes acrylamide when heated. The substance is suspected of being carcinogenic.

The rules are set to be extended to animal husbandry as well, once a system is in place to ensure changes are species-appropriate. Here, too, scientists are already working on ideas in laboratories. The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh has had initial success in breeding pigs that are resistant to the PRRS virus, one of the deadliest swine diseases.

The law only applies in England. Scotland and Wales, which have their own agricultural legislation, have no such plans. On the contrary, the Scottish Government has repeatedly emphasized its opposition to genetic modification and advocates the purity of Scottish products. Due to the special status of the region since Brexit, the rules of the EU continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

Many scientists and agricultural experts had expected more extensive and faster relief. Outside of Europe, the technology has been in commercial use for some time. In the US and Canada, a genetically modified mushroom variety that doesn’t turn brown when pressured has helped reduce food waste.

Genetically modified soybeans have also been used there for a healthier cooking oil since 2019. Two years ago, Japan approved a tomato with a higher content of a compound that helps lower blood pressure.

These countries are significantly less skeptical than countries in Europe when it comes to genetically modified food. This also applied for a long time to Great Britain, where 20 years later the heated discussion and protests about “Frankenfood” are still having an impact after activists destroyed a field of genetically modified corn in Norfolk in the summer of 1999 shortly before it was in bloom.

“Ultimately, society will benefit from these new discoveries – through better harvests and more nutritious foods,” Johnathan Napier, plant biotechnology expert at Rothamsted Research, told the BBC. He was recently able to sow the first genome-edited seeds in the laboratory’s test fields. Many improvements have long been promised. If they matured in the earth now, some of those pronouncements could come true.

But skepticism and resistance are far from over. It is “very disappointing” that the government is focusing on these technologies instead of tackling problems such as unhealthy eating habits, a lack of variety in the fields and over-intensive livestock farming, said Jo Lewis of the Soil Association, which advocates for healthy sustainable agriculture. In the end, only a few large corporations with the corresponding patents would benefit and further intensify agricultural management.

But consumers aren’t convinced either. According to a ministry survey, a third of the population considers genome-edited foods unacceptable. It is also still unclear whether the manufacturers have to label them accordingly. It is also unclear how quickly they will go on sale. Environment Secretary George Eustice wants to see them as early as next year, while Henderson, the ministry’s scientific expert, expects it to be more like four to five years.

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