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Time for a fresh look at the UK rulebook on using the GM method for crop improvement

Professor Jonathan Jones FRS

October 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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After almost 30 years’ safe and effective use of GM crops around the world, the technology has delivered major benefits for agriculture and the environment in terms of increased yields, lower pesticide use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But national bans and overly-restrictive rules on GM crop cultivation have limited the global gains to just one-third of the technology’s potential. At a time of mounting concern over the food, energy and climate pressures facing the planet, The Royal Society is calling for a more proportionate and evidence-led approach to regulating GM crops in the UK, explains plant scientist Professor Jonathan Jones.


I’ve been using the GM method to confer specific traits on plants for 40 years. It enables benign and useful crop modifications to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, especially by using genetics to replace the pest and disease control methods currently provided by agrochemistry. I’m still regularly astonished at the way this nature-based solution to crop improvement has been so misrepresented and vilified.


It is now more than 13 years since my team at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich first conducted field trials of potatoes modified using the GM method to resist late blight disease. Those early trials were not near market - they only carried one resistance gene - but we now have Maris Piper lines with three resistance genes that are likely to remain resistant for a long time. Farmers currently spray ~15 times per year to control late blight - this requirement could be removed (though some sprays might still be required to control early blight).


The Conservative government pledged post-Brexit to liberate Britain’s “extraordinary” biosciences sector from the EU’s anti-GM rules, and “to develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.” Might this finally become possible? Implementation of the EU’s GM crop regulations (now imported into UK law) imposes data requirements and costs out of all proportion to the risks, and beyond the spending power of all but the most deep-pocketed multinational corporations. It’s bewildering that the EU Farm to Fork strategy, which (for many good reasons) aims to reduce use of agrichemicals, makes no provision for helping farmers control pests and disease by replacing chemistry with genetics.  Even dossiers approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) can still be declined by the EU Commission and the Council of Ministers.  


However, the letter of this imported EU law permits derogation of at least some of the requirements that are routinely regarded as essential by EFSA, provided that the developer of the trait provides good reasons for any derogation. This derogation option was never taken advantage of within the EU, but now we are no longer members, we can.


Of course, regulation requires administrative capacity on the part of regulators.  Now that the UK has left the EU, it must make its own decisions on each application for deploying a new product in UK markets. Unfortunately, it currently takes even longer than the EU for the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) to approve imported GM crops for food and feed use, creating the bizarre situation in which – thanks to the Northern Ireland Protocol – livestock farmers in Northern Ireland have access to imported GM feed ingredients which have been approved in the EU, but which remain unauthorised in the rest of the UK.


Credit where credit is due, of course. The UK government has moved to exempt gene edited crops from those restrictive GMO rules where they contain no foreign DNA or could have been obtained through ‘conventional’ breeding methods.  This is great progress and I congratulate the ministers who made the decision to move this legislation forward and the hard-working and professional civil servants who implemented it.


It is early days, but there are signs that these legislative changes are already having their desired effect in encouraging research and innovation focused on making our farming systems more sustainable, with more than twice as many field trials of gene edited crops notified in England since March 2022 compared to the entire EU-27 over the same period.


The EU Commission has come up with its own proposals to deregulate gene editing, setting Europe on course to regulate gene edited plants in the same way as their conventionally bred counterparts.


For crops developed using the GM method, by contrast, the mood remains decidedly frosty among lawmakers on the Continent, and still cautious in the UK.


Many of the politicians who argued in favour of the Precision Breeding Act sought to emphasise the distinction between GM and gene editing, with the clear implication that GM crops are in some way less desirable, or perhaps even more risky, than gene edited crops. This view has zero scientific validity and is exasperating for plant scientists like me who have devoted their entire careers to using the method for crop improvement.


It ignores the fact that GM techniques can deliver outcomes that other crop breeding technologies cannot, for example in areas such as more durable pest and disease resistance, photosynthetic efficiency, nitrogen fixation and adaptation to climate change and abiotic stresses.  It also ignores the emerging evidence from modern genomics of massive structural and other genetic variation within our crops before they even get near any Agrobacterium that might modify them. Compared to pre-existing variation, the variation we introduce using either GE or GM methods is tiny; we have lost all sense of proportion.


When the GM method was first deployed, some thought there might be “unknown unknowns we didn’t even know we didn’t know about”. The “precautionary principle” was used to justify restrictive regulation of a crop improvement method that not only had never caused harm but had in fact resulted in benefits such as reduced insecticide applications. The precautionary principle understandably leads to regulation based on extreme risk aversion when knowledge is limited; such regulation should be reversible when decades of experience demonstrate that this risk aversion is no longer justified.


Scientific and regulatory agencies worldwide have repeatedly and consistently confirmed the safety of GM crops and foods. There has not been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Year after year, the technology has delivered significant economic and environmental benefits in those countries which have embraced its use.  This scientific and empirical evidence has accumulated over almost 30 years from commercial cultivation and use of approved GM crops around the world, on a total area now exceeding 200 million hectares.


In 2014, for example, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 147 studies found that growing GM crops helped reduced pesticide use by 37% while increasing crop yields (ie reducing the land required for crop production) by 22% and allowing more sustainable farming practices such as min- and no-till.


More recently, UK-based PG Economics concluded that GM crops have increased global food, feed and fibre production by nearly 1 billion tonnes (1996-2020), whilst helping farmers to reduce the environmental footprint associated with their crop protection practices by over 17%. The technology has also reduced carbon emissions, by an estimated 39.1 billion kilograms, arising from reduced fuel use of 14.7 billion litres and equivalent to removing 25.9 million cars from the roads.


These are hugely impressive results, but it turns out they represent only a fraction of the technology’s promise.


So while the adoption of GM crops has demonstrably contributed to increased crop yields, reduced pesticide use and lower carbon emissions, recent research published in the American Economic Review suggests that national bans or overly-restrictive rules on GM crop cultivation have also limited those global gains to just one-third of the technology’s potential. The study’s authors also note than poor countries would benefit most from lifting such restrictions.


That’s why the green NGOs campaigning against GM crops have so much to answer for. And why Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts characterised Greenpeace’s opposition to Vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice as “a crime against humanity.”


It is also why, as I argue alongside Jonny Hazell in a new policy briefing issued this week by The Royal Society, the UK government should re-evaluate its implementation of current GM regulations and explore the potential for more proportionate risk assessment and data requirements, based on the specific properties conferred by each introduced trait, the intended use and the receiving agricultural environment.   


In the longer term, we also contend that the UK government should follow its own policy on regulation, as set out in the 2023 Science and Technology Framework, and look to adopt an outcomes-based approach that stimulates progress enabled by science and technology while safeguarding citizens.


Given the UK’s academic plant science and commercial plant breeding expertise, the country has a great opportunity to use the GM method for the benefit of its citizens, to reduce the environmental and biodiversity impact of agriculture and to enhance international food security. It offers the potential to decrease the land required to meet our food needs and so free up more space for nature, decrease our dependence on food imports and our reliance on agrichemicals, and so decrease the economic and environmental costs of food production.


GM crop innovations developed in the UK are already being commercialised in other countries with more proportionate regulatory regimes. Outside the EU, the UK is no longer bound by an approach to regulation that is based on the scientifically unjustified idea that there are intrinsic risks in using the GM method. Instead, it can take advantage of the experience of almost 30 years of commercial use of GM crops to ensure its regulatory processes are proportionate to the potential for risks of specific traits in individual organisms, rather than the technology that delivers those traits.


Spurning the use of GM creates a substantial, and avoidable, opportunity cost, and that is why we urge the UK government to take a fresh look at the UK rulebook on using the GM method for crop improvement.   


Professor Jonathan Jones is a Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and a Professor at the University of East Anglia. His research focuses on using molecular and genetic techniques to study disease resistance mechanisms in plants.

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