The ECJ decision to subject gene editing to GM rules is a barrier to agricultural progress, says Adam Speed, communications manager at the Crop Protection Association. He calls on UK Ministers to do things differently if they want to show leadership in this area after Brexit.
‘Illogical and absurd’, a ‘death blow’ for plant biotechnology in Europe and ‘an intellectually vacuous decision that will hobble agricultural output for decades’.
These were just a few of the more printable reactions to the European Court of Justice disregarding the opinion of its own Advocate General and ruling that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding techniques are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and should therefore fall under the GMO Directive.
Even by the standards of EU policy making in plant science, it is rather unconventional to see the latest plant breeding techniques, such as gene editing, being covered by regulations that are older than the technology they are supposed to regulate.
So, what will this mean for the UK following our departure from the EU?
The Government has set out its ambitions for a Green Brexit. Indeed, the Health and Harmony consultation paper namechecks gene-editing as one of the innovations which could increase productivity while safeguarding the public goods of protecting human health and protecting the environment.
Does this mean the UK Government will regulate mutagenesis in a different way? And if so, what will that mean for trade?
These are important questions we hope Defra officials are considering as they spend the summer putting the finishing touches to our proposed future agricultural policy.
Brexit does present us with an opportunity to do things differently and slowly start to diverge from the more esoteric decisions of our European neighbours.
We have an opportunity to demonstrate some progressive leadership in this field by developing a genuinely science-based policy which provides opportunities for our world-class science base to lead the way in research and development.
Our farmers might then be able to benefit from innovations in plant science that allow us to produce healthy, safe, affordable food with a lighter environmental footprint.
In his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference at the start of the year, Defra Secretary Michael Gove said: “If we try to avoid change, hold the future at bay and throw up barriers to progress, then we don’t stop change coming, we simply leave ourselves less equipped to deal with change as it arrives.”
I could not agree more.
Europe has thrown up yet another barrier to progress in agricultural technology. Let’s hope it is one the UK can jump over.