Breaking away from restrictive EU rules on gene editing should be a no-brainer for Government, and we have provided a means to do this through the Agriculture Bill, says Julian Sturdy MP, chair of the Science and Technology in Agriculture APPG.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture provides a forum for politicians and stakeholders to raise the profile of agricultural innovation at Westminster.
The APPG was established just over 12 years ago when Sir John Beddington’s ‘perfect storm’ of food security, population growth, climate change and declining natural resources was beginning to hit the headlines.
It is one of the more active and influential interest groups in Parliament.
Seven or eight years ago, when George Freeman MP was chair, the group played a significant role in highlighting chronic under-investment in the UK’s applied and translational research capacity in agriculture.
Indeed, the APPG was instrumental in persuading the Government to establish the Agri-Tech Strategy, paving the way for new models of collaboration between public and private sector, and to bridge the funding gap between basic research and its commercial application.
Today the All-Party Group is active again in seeking to influence policy in support of agricultural innovation, this time in relation to precision breeding techniques such as gene editing.
The Group has long taken an interest in prospects for gene editing techniques to deliver step-change improvements in the speed and precision of crop and livestock improvement, opening up 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.
We share the UK Government’s disagreement with the July 2018 ECJ ruling classifying new gene editing techniques as GM.
The EU position is out of step with how these techniques are regulated in other parts of the world, such as the US, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Japan.
It is also at odds with the independent scientific advice provided to the UK Government by ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment).
Defra Ministers have indicated the Government’s view that gene edited products whose DNA changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods should not be regulated as GMOs.
That’s why the All-Party Group recently wrote to Defra Secretary George Eustice, urging the Government to use Brexit as an opportunity to ditch the EU’s damaging rules on gene editing, and instead align the UK with the regulatory stance of other countries around the world whose scientists, farmers and consumers are already benefiting from these more precise breeding technologies.
After taking evidence and views from scientists and regulatory experts, we are proposing a simple regulatory solution, which would be to change the current EU definition of GMO in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 for a definition compatible with the internationally recognised Cartagena Protocol – to which the UK is a signatory.
This would re-focus our future GM regulation on transgenic products incorporating foreign DNA, and not on the vast majority of gene editing applications which could have been produced naturally or through conventional breeding.
Next week the Agriculture Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading.
We very much hope the Government will adopt an enabling amendment putting in place the necessary powers for Ministers to consult on and, if appropriate, make this targeted change to the Environmental Protection Act.
Our proposal has attracted widespread support across the scientific, farming, plant breeding and international development sectors.
Scientists in particular are championing the cause, demanding the same access to these technologies as their colleagues around the world.
The main advantages of gene editing are speed and precision.
One compelling example of how gene editing could transform future prospects for British farmers was presented to a recent online meeting of the All-Party Group.
It relates to sugar beet, and as a beet grower myself, this makes it of particular interest.
Ian Munnery of sugar beet breeder SESVanderHave described the promising results of an Innovate UK-funded study to identify novel genetic sources of Virus Yellows (VY) resistance.
Since the withdrawal of neonic seed dressings, VY infestation and the lack of alternative effective treatment or genetic resistance is prompting genuine concerns about the future viability of the British sugar beet sector.
Ian Munnery explained that integrating these novel sources of VY resistance into elite beet varieties using conventional breeding could take 10 -12 years.
With gene editing it could take as little as 2-3 years for these varieties to be available to growers.
These are truly game-changing technologies with the potential to help our plant scientists, seed companies and livestock breeders address global challenges such as food and nutrition security, climate change and sustainable development.
As we chart our recovery from the devastating Covid-19 crisis, ensuring our scientists have access to the best available technologies and can conduct their research in a proportionate and enabling regulatory environment is absolutely critical.
We await the Government’s decision, but for me it is a no-brainer.
Julian can be found tweeting at @JulianSturdy