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Environmental protection

Homepage > Environmental Protection > Genetic Modification (GM) > Background - introduction to GMOs

Introduction to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

What is a GMO?

A GMO is defined in the legislation as an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which "the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination".

What is the Government's view on GMOs?

The Government has an open mind about GMOs. Its priority is to protect human health and the environment. The Government is pro-consumer choice and believes in the need for sound science to guide their development and use.

The Government set out its policy on the commercial cultivation of GM crops in a statement to Parliament in March 2004. The Government has concluded that there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the cultivation of GM crops in the UK, but that proposed uses need to be assessed for safety on a case-by-case basis.

What Defra does

We are responsible for:

  • the control of the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in England
  • developing national GM Policy and turning EU directives into national law representing the UK in EU and international negotiations on the environmental safety of GMOs
  • commissioning and disseminating scientific research on environmental aspects of GM
  • assessing the environmental risk of the contained use of GMOs.

The authorisation of GM seeds for the National Seed List etc. is dealt with by FERA.

What we don't do

We don't directly regulate GMOs in contained use (e.g. in a laboratory), this is controlled by the Health and Safety Executive, although we have a role in the assessment of their environmental safety. If the 'use' involves experiments on animals then it also needs a licence from the Home Office.

We don't control the assessment of GM food or feed. The Food Standards Agency lead on this in the UK.

We don't regulate the release of cloned animals, unless they are also genetically modified.

We don't give marketing approval for GM medicines and vaccines. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) advises on risks to the human health and the environment posed by these products, advice is forwarded to the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medical Products (EMEA) who, when there is EU wide agreement, issue the product authorisation.

We don't give approval for releases for research trials in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

How are GMOs controlled?

The release of GMOs into the environment is controlled by EU legislation. See:

What GMOs have been released?

At present there are only a few GMOs licensed for release under part C of

Directive 2001/18/EC (release for marketing purposes). These include, for example, carnations, oilseed rape and maize. GMOs that have consent for release under Part B of the directive are for research and development purposes. See:

Contacting Defra

You can contact us as follows:

GM Team
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Area 8A, 9 Millbank
17 Smith Square
London SW1P 3JR
Telephone (Defra): 08459 33 55 77

email us at:

Page last modified 3 April, 2009

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs