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Unfinished business? Next Government must prioritise implementing rules for precision breeding in agriculture  

Professor Mario Caccamo

June 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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It is hugely disappointing that the outgoing UK administration was not able to complete the implementation of its flagship legislation to free up the use of precision breeding techniques such as gene editing in agriculture. Time and time again the Precision Breeding Act was heralded by Ministers as an example of Britain flexing its new-found regulatory freedoms outside the EU to pursue a more pro-science, pro-innovation agenda. And yet at the end of this Government’s term in office, the new rules have still not come into effect. The potential to accelerate the development of crop varieties with increased yields, improved climate resilience and reduced environmental footprint will remain unrealised until the necessary implementing rules are introduced. Scientists, breeders, farmers, environmentalists and all those with an interest in freeing up the use of these promising new technologies must make that point clearly and unequivocally to Ministers and elected representatives in the next administration, urges NIAB chief executive Professor Mario Caccamo.     


In March 2023, after 10 months of scrutiny and debate, both Houses of Parliament confirmed their mandate to remove precision bred organisms (PBOs) from the scope of the restrictive GMO rules we inherited from the EU, as the new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 received Royal Assent. 


The new legislation provides the framework for a faster and more streamlined process to regulate the products of new precision breeding techniques such as CRISPR gene editing.     


This mirrors the approach taken by progressive and well-respected regulatory authorities around the world – including Australia, Canada, Japan, Argentina, USA and Brazil – whose regulations reflect the overwhelming scientific consensus that precision bred products pose no greater risks to human or animal health or the environment than their conventionally bred counterparts.       


But it is hugely disappointing that the outgoing UK administration was not able to bring forward the secondary legislation needed to implement the provisions of the Act because, as it stands, the legislation remains an empty shell and serves no functional purpose. 


And the unexpected hiatus caused by the decision to call an early General Election must not be allowed to derail progress.  


Investors and developers are queuing up to bring forward exciting innovations which will support more sustainable and productive farming systems, such as US food group J R Simplot Co, whose gene edited strawberries bear fruit for three times as long as their non-edited equivalents, producing up to five times as much fruit per plant. The berries also have a longer shelf-life, significantly reducing the potential for food waste. Or their CRISPR-edited baby new potatoes with bunched tuber architecture, concentrating the same amount of production from around a third of the land area previously required.


But if these precision breeding innovations were brought forward today, the reality is that they would still be regulated as GMOs because the necessary implementing rules are not yet in place.


I recently attended a meeting with European scientists, breeders and regulators, many of whom were surprised to learn that the Precision Breeding Act is not yet operational, since the narrative from the outgoing UK Government conveyed the impression that we are already open for business to bring precision bred products to market in England.      


Defra and FSA officials had worked hard to prepare the necessary implementing rules, which were notified in draft to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in April, with an expectation that they would be introduced to Parliament in July.


It is therefore imperative, and a matter of priority, that the next administration brings forward the secondary legislation needed to give force to the legislation at the earliest possible opportunity, paving the way for England to become a leader in sustainable crop innovation. 


These techniques can support faster access to genetic improvement, ensuring farmers have the tools they need to be more climate resilient, and to increase productivity while reducing inputs, while at the same time providing new solutions for safer, healthier eating, and reduced food waste.


I would strongly encourage crop scientists, farmers, plant breeders, environmentalists and all those with an interest in freeing up the using of these exciting new technologies to make that point clearly and unequivocally to Ministers and their elected representatives in the next administration.    


We have already seen the potential opportunities of a more proportionate regulatory approach to the use of precision breeding techniques, building on the UK’s world-class research base in plant genetic science.


Since new, simplified arrangements were introduced in March 2022 for experimental trials of gene edited plants in England, a range of applications have been tested in the field, virtually all with a focus on using precision breeding techniques to make our farming and food production systems healthier, safer, and more sustainable. 


So, for example, high lipid barley, gene edited to accumulate more oil in its stems and leaves, has the potential to reduce enteric methane emissions in ruminant livestock while also increasing productivity in milk and meat production. 


Pod shatter resistance in oilseed rape can help minimise in-field seed losses pre-harvest, so increasing yields and also reducing the need for chemical use in subsequent crops to spray off volunteers (weeds). 


Tomato lines gene edited to accumulate provitamin D3 in the fruit could provide a new source of vitamin D, which plays a vital role in maintaining our health and immunity.  


Camelina sativa, gene edited to accumulate omega-3 fish oils such as EPA and DHA, may offer a renewable, crop-based source of aquaculture feed and human supplements as an alternative to over-stretched marine resources.


Development of gene edited barley lacking a functional GSK1 gene may help reduce fertiliser inputs while maintaining current yields. 


And investigating the field resistance of Solanum americanum lines that have been edited to disable three immune receptor genes may help pave the way to developing genetic resistance in potato to late blight, a major disease currently controlled using multiple chemical treatments.


In short, precision breeding will enable plant scientists and breeders to accelerate the development of new crop varieties that require fewer chemical inputs, that are safer and healthier to eat, that allow more food to be produced from the same area of land, and that can help tackle climate change.


The sooner the secondary legislation is in place to implement the Precision Breeding Act, the sooner these innovations will be available on-farm, and delivering tangible benefits to producers, consumers and the environment.   


Professor Mario Caccamo is chief executive of UK crop science organisation NIAB. A computer scientist, he has over 20 years’ experience in life science research and big data, including specific projects to apply the latest DNA sequencing technologies and bioinformatics methods to advance scientific understanding of crop genetics and the interaction of agricultural crops with their environment. 

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