ScotGov must do the right thing by science on gene editing
Finlay Carson MSP
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Faced with a cost-of-living crisis, forecasts of increasing global hunger, and unprecedented drought conditions impacting crop production world-wide, Finlay Carson MSP, convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee in the Scottish Parliament, highlights the enormous contribution Scotland’s world-leading agri-science base can make, and urges Scottish Ministers to follow the science on technologies such as gene editing to allow research in Scotland to realise its full potential.
News that the James Hutton Institute in Dundee is set to house the new £40m International Potato Innovation Centre (IPIC), alongside the International Barley Hub already under construction, is a welcome boost for Scotland’s world-leading agri-science base, and a further demonstration that as a nation we punch well above our weight as a global centre for agricultural R&D.
Genetic improvement will be a key focus for the Centre, enabling plant scientists and breeders to make the most of the genetic variation within the Commonwealth Potato Collection already housed at the James Hutton Institute - an internationally recognised genebank conserving some 1500 accessions of wild and cultivated potato species.
The Centre will open up significant potential for Scotland’s scientific expertise to help address global food security, nutrition and sustainable farming goals, for example by supporting the development of higher-yielding potato varieties that are more resilient to extremes of climate, more resistant to pests and diseases, and with better nutritional and cooking qualities.
When the latest UN food security report found that nearly 10% of the world population was hungry last year, up from 8% in 2019, and with projections that climate change will lead to harsher growing conditions for crops, such vital research into this staple crop could be genuinely life-saving.
At the same time, the current cost-of-living crisis with soaring food and energy prices has brought into sharp relief the importance of farming innovations which will help secure future food supplies, at affordable prices.
But given the focus on genetics in both the barley and potato projects, the scientists involved must surely be wondering whether the centres will be allowed to realise their full potential, or whether the Scottish Government’s opposition to more precise breeding technologies such as gene editing will force them to work with one hand tied behind their backs.
Potato research in particular will benefit from access to these genetic technologies. Traditional forms of potato breeding are notoriously slow and laborious - as leading plant geneticist Professor Jonathan Jones has pointed out, “by the time a disease resistance gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it.”
This leaves growers more dependent on pesticides for disease control, often applied multiple times during the growing season, and I would agree with Professor Jones’ assessment that “it is better to control disease with genetics than with chemistry."
Advanced genetic technologies such as gene editing can accelerate the crop improvement process, delivering the same outcomes as traditional breeding methods, but in a fraction of the time.
It is therefore both disappointing and frustrating that the Scottish Government is refusing to engage with potentially UK-wide legislation – in the form of the Precision Breeding Bill – which would free up these technologies from restrictive regulations inherited from the EU and align our rules with countries like Australia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.
This is not about the science. In May this year Health Canada – the equivalent of our Food Standards Agency – declared that: “it is the scientific opinion of Health Canada that gene editing technologies do not present any unique or specifically identifiable food safety concerns as compared to other technologies of plant development. Therefore, gene-edited plant products should be regulated like all other products of plant breeding.”
Scotland’s Ministers have demonstrated that they can follow the science where genetic technologies are concerned, after FSA Scotland approved the import for animal feed use of nine new GM crops in May 2022. This was the right decision, in line with the scientific evidence and recognising that these technologies can support the safe, sustainable and cost-effective production of feed ingredients which Scotland’s livestock producers depend on to remain competitive.
But it makes no sense to ignore the science on gene editing, denying Scotland’s world-class-researchers – and in the longer term our farmers and growers – the tools they will need to support more sustainable and productive farming systems, to make crop and livestock production more resilient to the ever-increasing threat of climate change, and to ensure affordable food for all.
In the face of these unprecedented challenges, and the consequences at stake, access to these technologies should be a top priority for the Scottish Government; just as access to Covid vaccines - developed using new genetic technology, was essential to get us through the pandemic.
Along with many fellow MSPs, as well as Scotland’s farmers, scientists, agribusinesses and plant and livestock breeders, I would urge Ministers to re-think their approach, and not make Scottish science a casualty of entirely unrelated political differences.
Finlay Carson has been Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Galloway and West Dumfries since 2016. He has served as Convener of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee in the Scottish Parliament since 2021.