Environment secretary George Eustice has voiced his support for gene editing technology regulation to be reviewed in England, but Scotland has said it will not reconsider its position yet.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference today (Thursday), Mr Eustice said: “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.
“Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Government has said it will not reconsider its position on GMOs until after the forthcoming review of the decision made by the European Court of Justice in 2018.
Rural affairs minister Ben Macpherson said: “Scotland’s policy on the cultivation of GM crops has not changed - we will be maintaining Scotland’s GM-free crop status, in line with our commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards, and have made our views known to UK Ministers.
“The UK Government’s decision to consult on making changes to the definition, which would differ to Scotland’s approach, is an example of why we believe the UK Internal Market Act removes our competency to make decisions on the marketing of products in a devolved area. While any definition change outlined in their consultation would not in legal terms extend to Scotland, the UK Internal Market Act would force Scotland to accept the marketing, sale and free circulation of products in Scotland, which do not meet the standards set out in the Scottish regulations.”
NFU Scotland has called for the Scottish Government to also examine the case for GE and said any significant divergence in approach to gene editing would have implications for the UK Internal Market and the effectiveness of Common Frameworks or the UK Internal Market Bill.
NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick said: “We firmly believe that precision breeding techniques have potential to improve sustainability, respond to the climate emergency and reduce the use of pesticides.
“With Scottish Government awaiting the outcome of a European Commission study into the regulatory status of gene editing techniques, expected in April 2021, it is unlikely that the Scottish industry will see progress on this issue ahead of the Scottish Parliamentary election in May.
“However, the Scottish Government signalling open-mindedness to the science in correspondence with stakeholders last year is welcomed by the industry.”
Scientists also welcomed the plans set out in the Government’s consultation.
Dr Tina Barsby, chief executive of crop research organisation NIAB, said the proposals set out in this consultation represent potentially the most significant policy breakthrough in plant breeding for more than two decades.
“Outside the EU, the UK has an early opportunity to embrace a more progressive, science-based approach to genetic innovation, aligning our rules with the rest of the world and putting our scientists, plant breeders, farmers and food producers on a level playing field with their global counterparts.”
Prof Johnathan Napier, flagship leader at Rothamsted Research, said: “This consultation sends an important message that the UK’s bioscience sector is open for business, and equipped to meet the many challenges facing agriculture using new technology.
“Early benefits of gene editing for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those we have now. Gene editing can also help accelerate the improvement of orphan crops like cassava, millet, cowpea and yams, which are critical to food security in less developed parts of the world.”
The British Society of Plant Breeders’ (BSPB) chief executive Samantha Brooke said the proposals set out in the consultation would benefit plant breeders large and small, in both public and private sectors, and will open up exciting new opportunities for crop improvement across a wide range of species and characteristics.
However, Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST) chief executive, Christopher Price warned while there may be benefits for food, farming and conservation from the use of GE in farmed animals, demand, public acceptability and animal health and welfare is likely to be the limiting factor in its use.
He said: “As matters stand, we consider that there is potential for genome editing in the limited circumstances of a deleterious mutation threatening a breed’s survival, or there being an inadequate breeding population.
"However, there are greater risks to livestock biodiversity from the unplanned use of the technology. Accordingly, RBST will be engaging with Government to ensure any changes to the regulatory framework meet identified needs and maintain all necessary checks and balances.”
NFU vice president, Tom Bradshaw said new precision breeding techniques are critical in helping the industry to achieve the NFU’s climate change ambitions.
“In our drive to achieve net zero by 2040, these new tools could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events, as well as reducing our impact through a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.
“We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future.”
However, Dr Adrian Ely, reader in Technology and Sustainability at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said: “Claims about gene editing’s benefits for the UK’s nature and the environment are subject to numerous assumptions and uncertainties. We need to take the time to consider these carefully, rather than accepting them without interrogation.
“Global Britain has a responsibility to consider the implications of its technological choices alongside partner countries across the world.
“WTO rules prohibit us from regulating the safety of foods differently on the basis of whether they are produced domestically or come from overseas. Allowing gene editing in the UK would require us to open up indiscriminately to GE food imports from around the world.”
Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) has welcomed the launch of the consultation but said that unless a wide range of views are properly considered, the outcome could negatively impact on market access along with damaging the economic and ecological landscape for farming across England, and potentially the rest of the UK.
Roger Kerr, chief executive at OF&G said: “It’s concerning that GM and GE are being openly addressed by the prime minister and environment secretary as though it’s already part of agricultural policy. We worry the consultation is simply paying lip service to a deal that’s already been done. And that is simply not acceptable.”
Mr Kerr said introducing GE opens up the farmed environment to potentially harmful, unintended consequences and asked that a fully researched assessment of the long-term implications is undertaken.
“There’s an acute lack of peer-reviewed, independent research to back up the minister’s claims. Science has shown the climate and ecological crisis is having serious, negative effects on our food production systems. GE isn’t a responsible, proven solution.”
Cross-bench peer Lord Krebs, a former chair of the Food Standards Agency said the potential of these precision breeding techniques could deliver step-change improvements in the productivity and sustainability of all farming systems, including organic producers.
“Organic farmers have as much to gain as conventional farmers, if not more, from the genetic improvement of their crops to make them more disease resistant, more nutritious, more productive and so on."