The government is to fast-track legislation to allow the use of gene-editing technology in England but faces a battle to achieve the same outcome in Scotland and Wales.
The Queen’s Speech earlier this month paved the way for the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. It is being brought before Parliament to start its legislative journey this week, earlier than scheduled, in response to the developing global food crisis since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – although the technology will not offer a short-term solution.
The proposed changes will apply to plants before animal species. Government says it is “taking a step-by-step approach by creating legislation for plants first. No changes will be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare.”
Defra minister George Eustice claims the move is a post-Brexit benefit that removes the EU barriers that have held back research work at the UK’s leading agricultural research institutions.
“These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilisers,” he says. “The UK has some incredible academic centres of excellence, and they are poised to lead the way.”
But the SNP administration in Scotland wishes to stay aligned with the EU where possible, so that an independent Scotland could rejoin the EU. It objects to the UK Internal Market Act allowing any gene-edited crops approved for sale in England to be given automatic access to the Scottish market.
But in turn, this sets the Scottish government against the NFU Scotland, which believes innovative technologies such as gene editing could help Scottish agriculture respond to the climate emergency and biodiversity loss.
“Precision breeding techniques as a route to crop and livestock improvement could allow us to grow crops which are more resilient to increased pest and disease pressure brought about by our changing climate and more extreme weather events,” says NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy.
“It would also allow us to use new breeding techniques to breed more productive, efficient animals that produce lower emissions and need fewer inputs to protect their welfare. This could be crucial in enabling our farmers to become truly sustainable.”
The Welsh government has said it has no plans to ease restrictions on genetic technologies. Mr Eustice has written to both the Scottish and Welsh governments, urging them to reconsider their opposition to genetic technologies.
The AIC welcomes the ambition for innovation shown by the government’s Genetic Technology Bill. It believes such innovation can help address environmental outcomes; animal nutrition and consumer demands; and greater diversity in cropping.
Food Standards Agency chair Professor Susan Jebb advises that the proposed legislation recognises the need to update regulatory frameworks to keep pace with new scientific technologies. “Our regulatory system needs to be fit for purpose to unlock the benefits of new genetic technologies for consumers whilst providing confidence that our food standards will be maintained,” she says. “This includes animal feed as well as the foods we eat directly.
“New technologies must not undermine progress towards a healthier and more sustainable food system. Through our work with stakeholders and government we will strive for a transparent, proportionate, and science-based process for the regulation and authorisation of foods and animal feed in this fast-moving area.”