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Eustice: Key decisions on gene editing must be based on science not whims of lawyers

As the European Commission considers whether new plant breeding technologies like gene editing should be classified as GM, George Eustice has called for it to rely on science rather than lawyers.

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Farming Minister George Eustice has made a plea for crucial regulatory decisions on new ground-breaking plant breeding techniques to be based on science rather than the whims of EU lawyers.


Speaking at the John Innes Institute last Thursday, Mr Eustice highlighted the work being done there and elsewhere on techniques like CRISPR and Cisgenesis, which could deliver major benefits for growers in future.


Researchers at John Innes and the Sainsbury’s Laboratory have recently shown how CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, can be used to make targeted ‘edits’ to specific genes in a broccoli-like brassica and barley, which are preserved in subsequent generations.


The technique only involves the plant’s existing genes, rather than combining genes of different species, as with genetically modified (GM) crops.


The John Innes work showed it was possible to remove the ‘transgenes’ used during the editing process so subsequent generations are ‘indistinguishable in their make-up’ from conventionally-bred plants.


The European Commission currently looking at how these new technologies should be regulated.


Mr Eustice told the Norfolk Farming Conference the UK Government shared the concerns of scientists - and clearly many conference delegates - that EU lawyers could insist the wording of existing EU regulations classifies new technologies as GM.


This would almost certainly put a major break on the burgeoning technology in Europe, potentially denying the benefits to EU farmers.

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Mr Eustice said: “If we are going to make the next leap forward in yield and productivity and wean ourselves off our dependence on chemical pesticides, I think there is a crucial role for genetic technology, including the new breeding techniques like gene editing.”


He said he had been ‘encouraged by the attitudes of other member states who want to use this technology’, including those who were ‘sceptical’ of GM technology and had opted out of cultivating GM crops as now permitted under EU rules.


“They are keen the new breeding techniques are not treated as GMOs because they recognise if they are not going to have genetic modification, they need to make use of these other techniques.


“I hope the Commission is going to take a sensible approach and these new techniques are not going to be emasculated in the way GM crops have been.


“We must get the regulatory approach right. There is a danger with these things the lawyers convince themselves the wording of a particular regulation means things should be regulated in a particular way,”


“My own view is the correct way to how to regulate these techniques is through the science rather the legal text of the regulation,” he said.


While the UK is among those leading the drive to keep the new technologies out of the GM regulatory framework, he acknowledged the outcome of what will be a lengthy EU process was impossible to predict.


“We’ll have to wait and see. It maybe some technologies will be not be caught by GM and others might be,” he said.

Also at the conference

Also at the conference

Red Tractor on beer?

Suffolk brewery Adnams will consider carrying the Red Tractor logo on its beer, if it can find the space, the company’s chief executive Andy Wood said.


Mr Wood outlined the company’s commitment to sourcing local barley in a well-received presentation but was challenged by conference chair Guy Smith to ‘to do your bit’ to promote the Red Tractor to reflect farmers’ cost in producing an assured product.


Mr Wood said he would consider it and ‘did not have a problem’ with the carrying the logo other than the number of labels already on the company’s beer bottles and the list of other things he would like to include. “If we can fit it on, we will do it,” he said.

A fairer supply chain

Mr Eustice said Defra’s food and farming plan, due to be published later this year, would address the current 'unfairness' in the food supply chain.


He said: “We have some very successful food processors and a highly developed retail sector but when the chips are down all-too-often the risk and costs fall on farmers who are often price taker.”


He said the plan would seek to bring about ‘fairer sharing of risk throughout the supply chain’, for example through promoting better contracts and greater integration.


The plan will also address skills, attracting new entrants, promoting the British brand at home and abroad and managing volatility and risk through, for example, through futures markets and insurance schemes.

Is volatility still the word?

Mr Smith questioned whether the farming buzz word of the past few years still applies today in the midst of a prolonged market downturn across the sectors.


“Volatility suggests good times are not far behind you and not far away in front of you. We are now in the third year of depressed prices and could be in for another tough year with more blood on the carpet,” he said.

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