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Precision Breeding Bill: Plea to respect the science in the gene editing debate

Professor Jonathan Jones FRS

June 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

As the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the new Precision Breeding Bill starts taking evidence from expert witnesses, leading UK plant scientist Professor Jonathan Jones FRS shares an open letter to members of the Committee.


In the context of the Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, and as a life-long Labour voter and long-standing Labour party member, I welcome confirmation from EFRA opposition frontbench spokesman Daniel Zeichner MP during the Second Reading debate on 15 June that Labour is unequivocally pro-science and pro-innovation. 


I also welcome the fact that the Opposition has said it broadly supports the Government’s objective in seeking to update the regulation of modern genetic technologies such as gene editing, taking them out of the scope of 30-year-old GMO regulations. 


I hope that the Opposition will also at some point welcome a more fit-for-purpose and science-based framework for regulating crops improved by the GM method, such as the late blight-resistant potatoes developed in my lab that are ready for deployment, and that will greatly reduce the need for agrichemical sprays.


There is an unarguable and urgent need to deploy the most effective genetic technologies for crop improvement. By 2050, the world needs to produce up to 70% more food to feed a growing population, in the face of climate change, biodiversity loss and pressure on finite natural resources of land, energy and water. 


Genetic innovation is a crucial driver of productivity gains in agriculture, in reducing the environmental footprint of food production, and in reducing the need for additional land to be brought into cultivation for supply to match growing demand. 


Last year, a HFFA Research GmbH analysis of socio-economic and environmental impacts of plant breeding in Europe concluded that, since 2000, genetic innovation has accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops. Without the contribution of improved plant varieties, the HFFA study found that UK crop yields would be 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed in other parts of the world to meet our food needs, placing additional pressure on scarce global resources and causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions. 


But the HFFA study also highlighted that it will be difficult to maintain current rates of yield improvement without access to technologies that can accelerate the rate of progress in crop productivity. 


War in Ukraine has underscored the precarious balance between global food supply and demand, and the need to embrace scientific innovation to enhance crop productivity while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, protecting biodiversity and conserving precious natural resources.


That is why this legislation is so important. My own research at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich mostly involves GM rather than gene editing approaches to crop improvement, and I would like to see a more proportionate approach to the regulation of all genetic technologies. However, this Bill represents a significant positive step – following the research exemptions approved earlier this year – towards bringing our regulatory approach into line with other countries such as Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil and Argentina. 


My plea to the Bill Committee today is to ensure discussions are rooted in science. After proclaiming Labour’s support for science and innovation, I am puzzled why the Opposition has called organic farming representatives as witnesses before the Committee. The scientific consensus is that their practices, if widely adopted, would require a great deal more land to produce the same quantity of food.  Not only does organic production account for a vanishingly small proportion of farmland use in the UK – less than 3% of the utilised agricultural area (UAA) – but the organic sector’s leaders have already declared their opposition to the technology and the provisions set out in the Bill. 


Genetic technologies have a huge amount to offer both conventional and also more extensive systems such as organic and ‘agroecological’ farming, particularly through more durable resilience to pest, disease and abiotic stresses.  The fact that organic practitioners remain resolutely opposed to technologies that reduce the environmental impact of agriculture suggests a lack of self-reflection on their part. 


Even the redoubtable Mr George Monbiot, whose recent book Regenesis I read with interest, was in no doubt that agricultural productivity is a priority, since there is nothing as destructive of biodiversity as agriculture, and so we need less agriculture, not more, and the agriculture we have must be productive. He criticizes many in the organic farming movement for being in denial about this simple fact. Crop genetics is crucial for crop productivity, and we can now improve crops with greater precision than ever before; it is irresponsible to put in place disproportionate barriers to achieving this.


In the last decade, new DNA sequencing methods (many developed in Cambridge) have revealed extraordinary insights into crop plant genome structure and genetic variation. A clear message from these data is this; the changes we introduce by gene editing or GM are tiny compared the variation that is already present between any two breeding lines of any crop species.  If we are worried about the miniscule changes introduced by these methods, we have lost all sense of proportion.


I can respect the organic movement’s ideological opposition to modern crop improvement methods, just as I respect people’s right to choose organic, but that tolerance has to work both ways. The organic lobby’s current ‘zero tolerance’ opposition to use of gene editing and GM methods for crop improvement lacks any scientific basis and constitutes an intolerance that is completely unjustified.  


It is also somewhat hypocritical. Despite the organic lobby’s campaigns against GMOs, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, certified organic production permits the following:


  • Use of GMO-derived antibiotics (up to three times per year on a single animal without loss of organic status);

  • Routine use of non-organic seed, produced using the same synthetic pesticides and fertilisers the organic lobby campaigns against;

  • Use of thresholds for the use of non-organic feed ingredients – up to 5% non-organic protein in the case of organic pigs and poultry;   

  • Use of acutely toxic, copper-based pesticides to control diseases such as late blight in potatoes.


The introduction of precision-bred crops brings no new practical considerations which are not already addressed in growing and handling crop variety-derived products destined for a range of end-markets. Organic and non-organic farmers already co-exist and this co-existence is fully supported in the Bill by the concept of a public register of precision bred organisms which enables the organic movement to specify which plant varieties or animals they choose to allow or not within the organic standards they set. 


I urge members of the Bill Committee to respect the weight of scientific evidence which tells us that precision-bred crops pose no new or additional risks compared to their conventionally bred counterparts. Faced with a hungry, warming planet, the stakes are too high to get this wrong.          


Professor Jonathan Jones FRS and US National Academy of Sciences

Group Leader, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich

27 June 2022

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