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What will a Labour UK Government mean for agricultural science and innovation?


Professor Johnathan Napier

July 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

UK plant scientist Professor Johnathan Napier welcomes the newly elected Labour Government’s willingness to break new ground in relation to science policy, applauding plans for a new Regulatory Innovation Office, and suggestions that 10-year funding cycles and research programmes might be more appropriate than the current 3-5 norms. He expects Ministers to follow through quickly with the implementing rules needed to free up precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, after both Houses of Parliament approved the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act last year. But given the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to focus on wealth creation, he urges the new administration to go further in freeing up genetic innovation in agriculture, noting that the only place where UK science is creating wealth when it comes to GM crop research is North America. Blight resistant potatoes, purple tomatoes with increased antioxidant levels, and most recently omega-3 enriched camelina are all examples of GM crops worth billions of pounds which have been developed by public sector scientists in the UK, but commercialised in other countries with a more favourable regulatory landscape. Pointing to a recent Royal Society report calling for more proportionate, evidence-based regulation of GM crops, Professor Napier argues that after almost 30 years of safe and effective use of GM crops around the world, it is time for Britain to ditch the time-consuming, costly and restrictive rules we inherited from the EU, and unlock the potential economic and environmental benefits on offer.


A decade ago, the Labour party in opposition issued a policy review document entitled ‘Feeding the Nation: creating a resilient, growing food industry.’


The backdrop to this policy review will all sound very familiar: “The world will need to feed 8 billion people by 2025. Lack of access to land and water and the changing weather are putting pressure on the global food system. In the UK rising food prices and stagnant wages have created a cost of living crisis and growing food insecurity. A rising population, climate change and water stress will affect how the UK produces its food. We must grow more affordable food, more efficiently, waste less and with less damage to the environment.”


It also followed the internationally acclaimed UK Foresight Food and Farming Futures report, chaired by Professor Sir John Beddington, which urged Governments around the world to pursue policies of ‘sustainable intensification’ in agriculture, both through concerted application of existing farm technologies and by investing sooner rather than later in the research and innovation needed to help the world’s food system cope with the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges outlined above.


At that time, Labour’s policy prescription was sensible and coherent, pledging in its review to “work with the farming industry, food producers and voluntary sector to achieve ‘sustainable intensification’ – higher crop yields and more efficient production whilst recognising environmental constraints.”


It also highlighted the critical importance of translational research and innovation: “Britain is home to some of the world’s best universities and research centres on agricultural, food, life and environmental sciences. We need to find practical and commercial applications for this research in domestic food production to help us achieve a sustainable food supply. By focusing on productivity gains and resource efficiency through technology and innovation, the food sector will continue to compete effectively in the global economy.”


And it recognised the importance of modern biotechnology as one of the tools needed to support greater resilience in food and agriculture: “Biotechnology cannot, by itself, increase the UK’s domestic food supply, but it can be one of the tools used to ensure better resilience in the UK food chain, and to reduce environmental damage.”


I cannot disagree with any of these statements. Indeed, I would find it hard to improve on them.


But 10 years on, and with Labour elected to power with such a commanding majority, what does the future hold? 


The first point to make is that none of the challenges facing the global food system a decade ago have gone away, or even diminished. In fact, they have probably intensified in the wake of Covid and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.  


During the election campaign, all the major political parties highlighted the importance of domestic food security. “Food security is national security”, the Labour manifesto declared, pledging to "champion British farming whilst protecting the environment".


But with no specific mention made of agricultural science and innovation, how will the new line-up of Ministers, all keen to emphasise that Labour is ‘pro-science and pro-innovation’, take forward the commitments made a decade ago? 


There are certainly some promising signs that Labour will bring much-needed new thinking to the science and technology brief.


Their plan to create a new Regulatory Innovation Office, with a remit to set and monitor targets for regulatory approval timelines, benchmarked against international comparators, is a positive start.


Bringing together the functions of the Better Regulation Executive and the Regulatory Horizons Council in this way should very quickly establish that UK regulation of agricultural innovation is excessively risk-averse and disproportionate compared to other countries.


When Chi Onwurah spoke to the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture as shadow science minister in March, she also highlighted the need to take party politics out of the science and research agenda, for example suggesting that 10-year funding rounds and research programmes might be more appropriate than the current 3-5 year norms.


Again, this willingness to break new ground, and to listen to the views of scientists, is extremely encouraging to public sector researchers like me.


But there are also worrying signs that Labour’s pro-science approach in relation to agriculture could easily be side-lined by an appeal to a more populist, NGO-led agenda.


Commitments to more ‘nature-friendly farming’, to scrap the badger cull, and to rule out the possibility of future derogations on neonic seed treatments (whether effective alternatives are available or not), reflect more of an emphasis on ‘soundbite’ than sound science.       


Of course, an early litmus test of the new administration will be their willingness to follow through quickly with the secondary legislation needed to implement the provisions set out in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which was approved by members of both Houses in the last Parliament.


I am confident that Labour’s apparently lukewarm support for precision breeding techniques such as gene editing will have been more the posturing of His Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition than a statement of intent.


That’s because the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the products of these technologies pose no greater risks than their conventionally bred counterparts, and yet they can greatly accelerate the development of more climate resilient, higher-yielding crops requiring fewer pesticide and fertiliser inputs, and with improved quality and nutrition.


The draft implementing regulations are ready, indeed they have already been notified to the World Trade Organisation. It should be a formality for the new Government to bring them forward for Parliamentary approval at the earliest possible opportunity.


But I would urge the new administration to do more to support a pro-innovation agenda in relation to genetic technologies in agriculture. At this early stage in their five-year term, and with such a powerful majority, this Labour Government can choose to do the right thing by science, and commit to re-evaluate the regulation of transgenic technology (i.e. GM) as well as gene editing.


A central theme of Labour’s election campaign was wealth creation for the UK economy.


And yet the only place where UK science is creating wealth when it comes to GM crop research is North America.


It began with the GM blight-resistant potato, developed by Jonathan Jones and his team at The Sainsbury Laboratory, which has been commercialised in the US for the past 10 years by The J. R. Simplot Company.    


Then came the GM purple tomato with increased antioxidant levels, whose development was led by Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centres. Seed sales of the GM tomato are proving a hit with home gardeners in the US, with initial stocks reportedly sold out within weeks.  


And more recently, Rothamsted Research granted an exclusive global licence to US-based Yield10 Bioscience, Inc. to commercialise sustainable omega-3 products from GM camelina. This is the culmination of my own research over more than 20 years to develop a renewable, plant-based source of omega-3 oils at scale for the first time, with potential applications in the aquafeed, petfood, and nutritional supplement markets. This is a trait that is worth billions of pounds per annum, but is being exploited in US because of a more favourable regulatory landscape.


Each of these examples represents an economic and environmental success story, and a scientific breakthrough in its own right.


But is it right that other countries should be the main beneficiaries of UK-funded research such as this?


Last November, the Royal Society issued a new policy briefing on GM crops which, while welcoming the move towards more proportionate regulation of gene editing, also made the case for similar regulatory reform in relation to GM crops.


The Royal Society noted that almost 30 years since the technology was first commercialised, GM crops are now grown on more than 200 million hectares globally each year. There have been no substantiated reports of harm to human or animal health or the environment arising from the commercial cultivation and consumption of approved GM crops, and the technology has delivered significant economic and environmental benefits.


And yet it continues to be subject to time-consuming, costly and restrictive rules inherited from the EU.


The Royal Society has proposed a more streamlined mechanism for interaction between regulator and applicant based on plausible, science-based hypothesis of risk, as well as regulatory experience elsewhere of the crop/trait combination, rather than assuming that all GM crops are inherently risky.


A more proportionate, evidence-based approach to GMO regulation, based on the characteristics of the end-product rather than the use of a particular breeding technology, could help unlock UK-based innovation from our public sector research organisations as well as encouraging greater access and commercial activity among start-ups and SMEs.


It could also help realise the technology’s potential to address the global challenges of food security, climate change and sustainable development identified by the Labour party 10 years ago, and which are even more pressing today. 


The UK has not only fallen behind other major agricultural economies in its failure to embrace modern biotechnology; it is now also lagging behind many developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.


A 30-year freeze is long enough already.  It’s time for change.   


Professor Johnathan Napier is a leading pioneer in plant biotechnology and an advocate for the power of GM plants to deliver for the public good. At Rothamsted Research, his flagship research programme involves both GM and gene editing techniques to develop oilseed crops with enhanced Omega-3 levels as a more sustainable, plant-based source of healthy oils for human nutrition and for the aquaculture sector. He is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group.  

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