Precision Breeding Bill: Peers’ GM 2.0 style plans could put genome editing out of reach for smaller breeders
Robin Wood, Elsoms Seeds
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Elsoms Seeds is an independent, family-owned UK plant breeding company which recently celebrated its 175th anniversary. Deputy Chairman Robin Wood notes that Brexit dividends have so far been ‘thin on the ground’ for Britain’s plant breeders, and that leaving the EU has meant increased costs, delays, bureaucracy and business uncertainty for the seeds sector while operating in a much smaller market-place. Against this background, he describes the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill as a ‘beacon of hope’ with the potential to boost prospects for UK-based breeding investment and innovation. But as Peers prepare to debate the Bill at Report Stage, he warns that amendments seeking to add GM 2.0 style requirements to the face of the Bill, without scientific justification, could put these promising new technologies out of reach for independent SME breeding companies like his.
“..the potential inclusion of additional ‘public good’ criteria, environmental risk assessments and separate food and feed safety checks not applied to the products of conventional plant breeding could drive up registration costs and put these technologies out of reach for businesses such as ours. Instead, it would concentrate commercial activity in the hands of deep-pocketed multinational businesses and large-scale crops, as has happened with GMO technology.”
Britain’s plant breeding industry welcomed the introduction to Parliament of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in May 2022 as potentially the most significant policy development in genetic innovation for more than two decades.
It is certainly the first time in most people’s recollection that legislation has been brought forward which seeks to reduce barriers to the use of genetic technology in agriculture, in line with the science, rather than impose or add to them.
Precision breeding techniques such as genome editing involve making desired changes to a plant which could equally be achieved through traditional processes, but more quickly and with greater precision. Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding – for example to improve its yield, nutritional quality or resistance to disease – can take up to 15 years, but genome editing can help reduce that timescale significantly.
The primary focus of the new legislation is to exempt precision bred crop varieties from the restrictive GMO rules we inherited from the EU. In doing so, it will make the regulation of these breeding technologies more proportionate and science-based, aligning our rules with other countries such as Australia, Japan, Argentina and Canada.
By sending a clear message that the UK’s bioscience sector is open for business, the Bill could also encourage more investment in UK-based research and innovation to develop healthier, more nutritious foods, and to make farming systems more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change.
Early benefits of genome editing for UK agriculture might include drought-tolerant and gluten-free varieties of wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and virus-resistant potatoes that are even healthier than those we have now.
For an independent SME like Elsoms Seeds, with a broad portfolio of agricultural and vegetable crops, making techniques such as genome editing more accessible would be a game-changer in accelerating the process of crop improvement, and as important for smaller, high-value niche crops as for large-scale, broadacre varieties.
Indeed, the Precision Breeding Bill is the one chink of light to emerge from the UK’s exit from the EU which, to date, has been extremely challenging for Britain’s plant breeding and seeds sectors.
Brexit dividends have been thin on the ground as plant breeders have faced increased variety registration costs, delays and bureaucracy alongside greater business uncertainty, all the while operating in a much smaller market-place.
The statutory variety registration process, which previously covered all 28 member states, must now be duplicated for the UK market at great expense, a situation which is prompting difficult investment decisions and will inevitably result in reduced cropping options for British growers.
Compared with other sectors, plant breeding is a research-intensive activity, with most companies investing around 20% of returns in R&D. Income streams are relatively inelastic, and operating margins are tight.
Outside the EU, the Precision Breeding Bill presents an early opportunity to embrace a more progressive, science-based approach to genetic innovation, putting our scientists, breeders, farmers and food producers on a level playing field with global counterparts.
It is an exciting prospect for companies like ours. We share the Government’s ambition for the Precision Breeding Bill to boost investment and cement the UK’s position as a global hub for agri-science innovation.
But there is a worrying cloud on the horizon as Peers prepare to debate proposed amendments to the Bill at Report Stage. For example, the potential inclusion of additional ‘public good’ criteria, environmental risk assessments and separate food and feed safety checks not applied to the products of conventional plant breeding could drive up registration costs and put these technologies out of reach for businesses such as ours. Instead, it would concentrate commercial activity in the hands of deep-pocketed multinational businesses and large-scale crops, as has happened with GMO technology.
An important study conducted in Argentina has shown how more proportionate regulation of genome editing techniques – in line with the planned approach set out in the Bill – can help democratise the crop research and innovation process. Taking genome edited crops out of the scope of GMO rules, and regulating them in the same way as conventionally bred varieties, has delivered a research dividend in Argentina, with investment and R&D activity spread across a more diverse range of organisations in both private and public sector, and across a much broader range of crops and traits. Other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia, are on a similar pro-innovation trajectory.
The rationale for Genetic Technology Bill is to enable innovation. The scientific evidence, not only from the UK Government’s own independent advisers, but also from leading international regulatory authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Health Canada, confirm that the risk profile of precision bred products is no greater than for conventional. Indeed, Health Canada has explicitly stated that no additional safety assurances or knowledge would be gained through extra regulation of gene edited foods or plants beyond existing plant variety and seeds regulations.
For Britain’s plant breeders, already wrestling with additional costs, delays and business uncertainty as a result of leaving the EU, there is a real danger that the industry will shrink in the next 5-10 years, with genetic material being developed outside the UK.
The Genetic Technology Bill offers a beacon of hope for future investment and innovation in our industry, and an opportunity for Britain to take a lead in harnessing these technologies to help deliver more productive, sustainable and climate friendly agriculture.
I would therefore urge Peers seeking to add GM 2.0 style requirements to the face of the Bill, without scientific justification or evidence of risk, to consider the impact on prospects for investment and innovation across the UK plant breeding sector, and particularly for smaller, independent businesses like Elsoms Seeds.
Robin Wood is Deputy Chairman of Elsoms Seeds, an independent, family-owned plant breeding and seeds business based in Spalding, Lincolnshire which was established in 1844. Robin is also vice-chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), which represents the interests of the UK plant breeding industry.