The Agriculture Bill reaches the committee stage of its progress in the House of Lords this week. Among the amendments for debate by the peers is one to allow the use of gene-editing technologies in the UK.
The move, supported by the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), follows an approach to government in early June by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture. The APPG chairman, Conservative MP Julian Sturdy, called for proportionate regulation of genome-editing on behalf of a broad lobby of UK research, plant breeding, farming and seed supply bodies.
Mr Sturdy’s APPG is behind the Lords’ Amendment 275 which calls on government to “consult on and, if appropriate, make a simple change to the Environmental Protection Act which would reverse damaging EU rules classifying gene-edited products as GMOs”.
It is proposed by former CLA president Lord Cameron of Dillington with the support of former Defra minister in the Lords Baroness Hayman; Lord Krebs who was the first chairman of the Food Standards Agency; and Lord Rooker, a former Defra minister.
The BSPB says access to the latest gene-editing techniques would re-align Britain with the regulatory stance of other countries and be a step change in prospects for crop improvement to support a more sustainable, productive and climate-resilient agriculture. The move has widespread support from the scientific, farming, plant breeding, food processing and international development sectors.
“Advanced gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 can improve the speed and precision of crop breeding, opening up significant opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change,” explains BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke.
“However, the European Court of Justice ruled in July 2018 that these techniques should be treated as GMOs, putting the EU at odds with how these techniques are regulated in other parts of the world, such as the US, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Japan.
“Defra ministers have repeatedly indicated the Government’s view that gene-edited products should not be regulated as GMOs if the DNA changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. This amendment offers a simple regulatory solution for this once the UK leaves the EU.
“Britain’s plant breeders fully support early government action on this issue, in line with the Prime Minister’s pledge to liberate our biosciences sector. We would urge Peers to speak out in support of amendment 275 as it is introduced at Committee Stage,” concludes Ms Brooke.
• An Agriculture Bill amendment to require imported foods to be produced to UK standards to prevent domestic undercutting was proposed at the House of Commons committee stage in mid-May this year but was defeated. At the time, many MP’s assured constituents that this should be a Trade, not Agriculture Bill amendment – but this week the Conservative majority in the Commons voted down a Trade Bill amendment to protect UK food standards.