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Is England’s new gene editing law at risk of becoming an empty shell?

Nigel Moore

April 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

Plant breeder Nigel Moore warns that in contemplating the imposition of ‘GMO like’ regulatory measures for ‘nature like’ plants, the Food Standards Agency may well put paid to prospects for investment in precision breeding in England. That would effectively close off a real opportunity to deliver on the Agency’s stated aims to improve the safety, nutritional value, sustainability and affordability of our food, he suggests.


Last month, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent to become an Act of Parliament.


This is a hugely significant piece of legislation for society.  By taking technologies which are more precise than traditional plant breeding out of the scope of restrictive GMO regulations, the new Act opens up the potential for plant scientists, breeders and farmers to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity and resource-use efficiency, reduced chemical use, and resilience to climate change.  As others before me have observed, it is the first time in more than three decades that regulations have been brought forward which seek to enable (rather than restrict) research and development using innovative genetic technologies in agriculture.


Importantly, it also aligns our approach with the regulatory stance of other countries, such as Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and Australia, which do not regulate gene edited plants and seeds as GMOs. 


However, while Royal Assent represents a major milestone, it is not the end of the legislative process. The Act itself provides a framework for subsequent implementing rules to be introduced through secondary legislation. These will set out the details of any additional measures that would apply to precision bred plants in England on top of the long established and rigorous seeds marketing laws that already apply.    


For plant breeders, the most significant of these will be the Food Standard Agency’s plans for food and feed marketing.


The underpinning rationale of the Bill is that products confirmed as precision bred organisms (PBOs) have genetic changes similar to those that could equally have occurred naturally, or as a result of conventional breeding, and therefore pose no greater risks. However, the red warning lights are already flashing for potential investors in research and development programmes because, despite the logic of the PBO definition, the FSA is considering to deny the facts of biology and establish an entirely separate bureaucratic process for PBO food and feed safety assessment, complete with public consultation, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care sign off and Parliamentary approval for each PBO application.


This would be in addition to existing statutory requirements for the introduction of new crop varieties, which already require a two-year process of variety evaluation, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sign off, and full traceability of seeds.  This system has operated effectively and with an impeccable track record of food and feed safety for many decades, enabling the continuous development of plant varieties with ever improved resource use efficiency, resistances, resiliencies and adaptation.  For most crops, the law requires each new variety to offer an independently proven improvement in these aspects before it can be legally marketed.  In this way, seeds regulation focuses on driving for ever increasing benefits from plant breeding rather than trying to find hypothetical risks in crop plants that have been both subject to significant genetic change and consumed by humans for millennia.


This calls into question the basis for the FSA’s approach. As a detailed Scientific Opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in November 2020 and technical guidance from Health Canada in May 2022 have both confirmed, with extensive reference to the published scientific literature, PBOs pose no additional food safety risks compared to conventionally bred plant varieties. Indeed, the Health Canada guidance emphasises that no additional safety assurances or knowledge would be gained through extra regulation of PBO foods or plants beyond existing plant variety and seeds regulations.


At the same time, the FSA appears ready to thumb its nose at the deliberated conclusions of both Houses of Parliament by re-opening discussions over the introduction of mandatory labelling for precision bred products.


Scarcely had MPs concluded the Bill’s final Parliamentary stage in the House of Commons on 6 March, than the FSA published Board papers on 9 March in advance of its meeting on 22 March, pointing to selected information from an opinion survey indicating that most consumers (77%) say they want labelling of precision bred products.  Even though both Houses of Parliament rejected proposals for mandatory labelling during the passage of the Genetic Technology Bill precisely because no new risks are introduced compared to genetic changes occurring in nature and conventional breeding, the FSA notes that there are nevertheless “existing powers under the Food Safety Act 1990 to make secondary legislation to regulate the labelling and description of food which could potentially be used to lay down labelling/information requirements for PB food.”  


While no immediate conclusions on consumer information were reached at the FSA Board meeting itself, other than to reflect further on the issue, the Agency’s chair Professor Susan Jebb was right to suggest that precedents do exist for labelling production systems or processes.


She referred to organic food as one such precedent, and it is indeed a prime example of how the existing traceability of seeds already makes it perfectly possible for a consumer brand that wishes to avoid modern technologies to do so and label their brands accordingly.


For example, one widely-established plant breeding method known as Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS), used in the production of elite performance F1 hybrid lines, is not accepted under European organic standards, and so organic producers use variety lists compiled by their sector bodies to avoid crop varieties bred using the CMS system. Such an approach could equally apply where organic growers are seeking to avoid precision-bred varieties. 


But it must be emphasised that the organic label, just like ‘free-range’ or ‘outdoor-reared’, is a voluntary, private label. It is not mandatory to label foods produced using these practices. When produced in surplus, organic milk can simply be added to the non-organic milk supply without providing that information to consumers, for example.   


Breeders are happy to disclose breeding methods in public registers to enable supply chains to make whatever brand sourcing decisions they require, driven by their customers’ wishes.  Mandatory labelling, by contrast, requires notification by law of all content above a specified threshold level, with the clear implication to consumers that it is inherently different, or poses a specific concern.  


By using the statutory seed label and Defra register of PBOs, alongside variety information provided by the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and member companies, sourcing choices on breeding method are fully enabled without the disproportionate burden of mandatory food labelling and consequent complex enforcement for something that is largely meaningless and could even be misleading.      


In contemplating the imposition of ‘GMO like’ regulatory measures for ‘nature like’ plants, the FSA may well erect the same obstacles that have led to the de facto moratorium on GMO in Europe, and put paid to prospects for investment in precision breeding in England.  That would effectively close off a real opportunity to deliver on the Agency’s stated aims to improve the safety, nutritional value, sustainability and affordability of our food. 


These considerations are neither consistent with the PBO definition, independent scientific opinion or the societal need for a sustainable food system, and indeed directly contradict the position taken by two former chairs of the Food Standards Agency – Lord Rooker and Lord Krebs – who both argued against mandatory labelling of PBOs.   One can only wonder why the FSA might be motivated to act in this way? 


It is also worth setting the qualitative consumer research published by the FSA in context.


While the opinion survey findings suggest that 77% of respondents support mandatory labelling of precision bred products, 75% had not previously heard of precision breeding, nor were they aware of what type of genetic changes occur in nature or in traditional breeding, rather begging the question whether labelling products as ‘precision bred’ would be at all informative or meaningful.   


Similarly, the FSA research found that consumers “were surprised and sometimes felt uncomfortable about conventional breeding methods, having previously assumed that there was less human intervention in breeding for food production. Induced mutation in particular was worrying for participants, due to the use of chemicals or radiation. They noted that they were unaware of these methods previously and had questions about them.“


The report adds that: “This context is key when analysing participant reactions to precision breeding, as awareness of other breeding methods often shaped participants reactions to information about precision breeding.” 


So above all, the FSA’s research highlights a much wider communication challenge surrounding the use of science and technology in agriculture, and genetic technologies in particular. The findings call into question the validity of current public discussions around issues such as precision breeding, when most consumers appear unaware of the level of scientific intervention which has already gone into the development of our everyday foods.


Another approach to providing consumer information, and one which my own company KWS favours, is to provide full disclosure about the breeding methods used to develop our crop varieties. We have nothing to hide and prefer to explain why we use particular techniques and how that benefits people.  Our website aims to provide complete transparency, and, whether cytoplasmic male sterility, chemically-induced mutation or tissue culture mean anything to consumers as plant breeding methods or not, we want to use gene editing to speed up the breeding process and deliver better varieties faster.  This is in society’s interests as well as ours and we believe that contextual information is more meaningful and is the best way to avoid these developments being misunderstood and consequently inappropriately regulated.


Some politically motivated activists hope to impose their opinion by singling out gene editing for separate labelling, to flag the breeding method rather than any specific characteristic of the end-product. This effectively misleads people into thinking that there is something to be worried about and close markets in the same way as happened for GMO.  The whole reason for this legislation is to avoid the same fate for these new more precise breeding methods. We prefer to respect the view of those who wish to reject technology by providing the transparency to enable them to make their personal choices but, at the same time, allow others in society to make informed choices about how innovation in plant breeding can contribute towards tackling climate change and delivering a safe, sustainable food supply. 


Early research using gene editing, including by plant scientists here in England, is already showing the potential to make our food supply safer (eg acrylamide reducing wheat), more nutritious (eg vitamin enriched tomato) and more sustainable (eg Omega-3 enriched Camelina as a renewable, plant-based source of aquaculture feed).  


With the mandate to bring forward secondary legislation, members of the FSA Board effectively have the future prospects of these technologies in their hands. Experience tells us that disproportionate, GMO type regulation will slam the door closed on innovation for a long time.


Nigel Moore is a plant scientist with formal education in plant physiology, genetics and agronomy. He has worked in private sector plant breeding research and seeds for over 35 years.  Nigel is employed by the seed company KWS leading their Nutritional Food Ingredients global strategic focus area. He is a former chair of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and past President of Euroseeds, the European plant breeding and seeds organisation. He is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group.  

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