Unwarranted ‘just in case’ provisions in Precision Breeding Bill could scupper plans for UK-based investment
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
“The devil is in the detail,” says plant breeder Nigel Moore, warning that Ministers’ ambitions to make Britain an agri-science superpower may fall at the first hurdle
When the Government introduced the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in the House of Commons on 25 May, Ministers claimed the new legislation would help make the UK the best place in the world to invest in agri-food research and innovation.
Having scrutinised the detail of the Bill, however, many of Britain’s plant breeders, farmers, seed and grain merchants are warning that the Government’s hopes of a post-Brexit rush to invest in new genetic technologies such as genome editing could be dashed by the inclusion of scientifically unjustified risk assessments and unnecessary additional hurdles by the Food Standards Agency – requirements which do not currently apply to conventionally bred crop varieties.
Regulations under Section 3 of the Bill, for example, provide for new Ministerial powers to:
Prohibit Precision Bred Organisms (PBOs) from being placed on the market in England without a marketing authorisation issued by the Secretary of State;
Impose additional requirements for the traceability of PBO food and feed products placed on the market;
Prescribe new requirements to ensure PBO food and feed products:
will not have adverse effects on human or animal health,
will not be marketed in a way which might mislead consumers;
will not be nutritionally disadvantageous to humans or animals; and
Prescribe new requirements to ensure the production (ie processing/manufacture) of PBO food and feed products will not have adverse effects on the environment.
Current performance by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in regulating GM feed import dossiers does not inspire confidence that implementation of these provisions would be either light-touch, low-cost or proportionate.
In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson famously pledged to liberate Britain from the EU’s anti-GM rules, and yet the first tranche of GM feed import applications approved by the FSA lagged behind the EU by more than 12 months.
This meant that, bizarrely, GM feed ingredients not yet authorised in the rest of the UK could be freely marketed in Northern Ireland for more than a year - under the Northern Ireland Protocol - in stark contrast to the PM’s promise.
The clear premise behind the Bill is that the breeding outcomes under consideration are only, and precisely, those involving genetic changes that could occur in nature or in traditional breeding. So how on earth can there be any rationale to add this potentially significant regulatory burden of risk assessment that does not apply if the same genetic changes are achieved in a different way? That is a massive disincentive to use modern innovation and the most likely outcome, if this part of the Bill remains, will be a failure to address the urgency of improving the sustainability of our food production.
The EFSA Scientific Opinion of November 2020 and recent technical guidance from Health Canada have confirmed that PBOs pose no additional food safety risks compared to conventionally bred plant varieties. Indeed, the Health Canada guidance clearly states that no additional safety assurances or knowledge would be gained through extra regulation of PBO foods or plants beyond existing plant variety and seeds regulations.
BSPB, AIC, NFU and CropLife UK fully support stated aim of the Bill in freeing up these technologies which will help deliver more productive, sustainable and climate friendly agriculture.
All four organisations also support the rationale for a statutory notification process to confirm PBO status (ie no transgenic material in the final product), and for the establishment of a register of confirmed PBO products to support transparency and freedom of information.
But there are serious concerns that the inclusion of these additional ‘just in case’ provisions by the Food Standards Agency, without any scientific justification, will create extra unnecessary costs, regulatory hurdles and business uncertainty which could ultimately block or deter UK-based investment in research and development using these techniques.
This is particularly the case in UK-based plant breeding because:
Brexit has already brought significant additional costs, uncertainty and delays because each new plant variety previously registered once to cover all 28 member states must now be separately registered for the UK;
Post-Brexit import/export and plant health arrangements have brought additional costs, delays and uncertainty to the sector;
Income to plant breeders via seed royalties is relatively inelastic and operating margins are extremely tight.
It must also be emphasised that, for commercial plant breeders, the primary benefit of greater access to use these techniques will not necessarily be the blockbuster traits being trailed in the media – such as vitamin enhanced or biofortified crops – but rather the ability to accelerate the delivery of existing breeding targets, for example to develop higher yielding, more disease or pest resistant crop varieties with improved end-use properties, such as taste or processing characteristics.
If the food safety components of a new PBO regulatory system are simply replicating the components of GMO regulation by another route, when existing variety registration and seed marketing regulations already provide comprehensive regulation - with an impeccable safety track record and underpinned by general food safety, novel food and environmental protection legislation – there is a genuine risk that the promised Brexit dividends of investment and innovation will not transpire in practice as plant breeders – deterred by the prospect of additional costs, delays and bureaucracy - simply opt to wait the additional four or five years to deliver the same innovations through conventional means.
It is equally unclear what the FSA hopes to achieve through the inclusion of these extra unwarranted steps. As farmer Paul Temple observed in a recent Farming Matters article:
“Surely one of the things we have learned from 20 years of the GMO debate is that if you treat certain products differently and add layers of controls and regulation – without any scientific justification – you don’t reassure consumers. Instead, you increase their perceptions of risk, when the science actually says that these products and techniques are not only as safe but probably safer than what has gone before.”
Along with others, I will be urging lawmakers in both Houses to follow the science and not create unnecessary barriers to these more precise methods of genetic improvement which will be urgently needed to tackle the looming food security and climate crisis.
Nigel Moore is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. He is a plant scientist with formal education in plant physiology, genetics and agronomy. He has worked in private sector plant breeding research and seeds for over 35 years. Nigel is employed by the seed company KWS as global head of business development and strategy for cereals crops. He is a former chair of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and past President of Euroseeds, the European plant breeding and seeds organisation.