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Gene editing - three simple questions for ScotGov

Finlay Carson MSP

November 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

Speaking in a member’s question debate on gene editing at Holyrood earlier this week, Finlay Carson MSP, convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee, urged ScotGov to introduce simplified rules for experimental research to ensure Scottish research is not left behind. He called on Ministers to acknowledge the positive signals emerging from the EU regarding the benefits of precision breeding for more sustainable, climate resilient agriculture, and the rapid progress towards regulatory reform in Brussels. And he highlighted ScotGov’s own consumer research showing that two in three Scots would be willing to try gene edited foods as a good basis to embrace the potential of a technology with so much promise for Scotland’s world-leading scientific, farming, and food and drink sectors. Read the full text of Finlay Carson’s contribution to the debate below.

 

“Scotland is rightly proud of its position as a world-leader in agricultural and biological science, boasting internationally renowned centres of excellence such as the Roslin Institute, Moredun, SRUC and the James Hutton Institute, underpinned by a vibrant university sector.

 

We punch well above our weight as a global centre for agricultural R&D.

 

But if Scotland is to maintain its reputation for scientific leadership, and if our farmers and growers are to have access to the tools they need to deliver the productive, sustainable and climate-resilient farming systems of the future, the Scottish Government must urgently re-think its hostile and outdated policy towards the use of more precise genetic technologies such as gene editing.

 

Dr Joanne Russell, a lead researcher at the newly established International Barley Hub in Dundee, recently shared her personal views that her research would benefit enormously from greater access to genetic technologies such as gene editing.

 

Dr Russell explained that there are 400,000 different barley accessions in gene banks around the world – comprising wild types, land races and modern cultivars – and that the solution to many of the biotic, abiotic or climatic challenges for the barley crop lies somewhere in that genetic diversity. Access to technologies such as genome sequencing and gene editing will potentially dramatically improve the chances of identifying and exploiting beneficial traits in the barley crop.  

 

Other researchers have voiced their concerns that the regulation of technologies such as gene editing should not become a ‘political football’ in a stand-off between Holyrood and Westminster.

 

I’m sure many members will join me in echoing those concerns.

 

Against a background of war, climate change and rising food and energy costs, we must ensure that agricultural and biological research in Scotland does not get left behind.

 

But there are fears that may already be happening.

 

In March this year, a simplified regime for experimental field trial research of gene edited crops was introduced in England. Within months the system is already supporting more field trials than under the previous GM regime.

 

Will Scottish Ministers consider the introduction of a simplified regime for experimental field trials of gene edited crops in Scotland, to ensure research currently confined to the laboratory and glasshouse can progress to the field, and prevent our researchers being left behind? 

 

Scottish Ministers have said their preference is to remain aligned with the EU on this issue, and that they are monitoring EU developments closely.

I wonder how closely they monitored the conclusions of the September EU Farm Council in Prague, which the Czech Presidency summarised as follows:

 

“Ministers agreed that the EU must react as quickly as possible to the development of modern trends and not hinder innovation. It is, therefore, important to change the outdated legislative framework by which the EU regulates the use of modern plant breeding methods. This framework not only restricts European farmers, but also leads to an outflow of experts to countries outside the EU, so the damage is extraordinary.”

 

Have Ministers also followed the recent EU public consultation which found that 80% of participants consider existing GMO rules as not fit-for-purpose to regulate plant varieties developed using techniques such as gene editing? 

 

The European Commission has said new genomic techniques can contribute to a more resilient and sustainable agri-food system by developing crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, diseases and the effects of climate change; that require less natural resources, fertilisers and pesticides; can improve the nutrient content of food and feed and reduce harmful substances such as toxins and allergens. 

 

In view of these positive statements from EU Ministers and the Commission on the promise of new genomic techniques, and with the EU now moving at pace to introduce new regulatory proposals in the first half of 2023, is it not time for ScotGov Ministers to acknowledge the potential of these technologies to deliver more sustainable and climate resilient agriculture – as EU Ministers are doing – and move on from the tired rhetoric that gene editing threatens the clean and green image of Scotland’s food and drink industries?

 

 

Finally, Ministers often refer to needing the ‘social licence’ to move forward – a classic ‘kick the can down the road’ strategy. But are Ministers aware that the Government’s own research shows that consumers in Scotland are very open to technologies such as gene editing which can maintain an affordable supply of food while delivering on the climate and green agenda. Research published last month by Food Standards Scotland shows that around two in three people consistently say they would eat a precision bred product if it had health benefits (68%), was better for the environment (66%), improved animal welfare (67%), was safer for people with allergies (66%), tasted better (62%), was cheaper (63%) or more resilient to changing climates (63%).

 

Does the Minister agree that this is a remarkable thumbs-up for a technology which hasn’t yet reached the market-place, and a good basis for ScotGov to embrace the potential of a technology with so much promise for Scotland’s world-leading scientific, farming, and food and drink sectors?”   

     

 

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.