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ScotGov must adopt a more science-based approach on gene editing

Samantha Brooke

October 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

Responding to the recent ScotGov consultation on a future Agriculture Bill for Scotland, Samantha Brooke explains that while plant breeders applaud the document’s explicit focus on the importance of conserving plant genetic resources, Ministers must recognise the value of new breeding technologies, such as gene editing, in unlocking their potential. 

 

The Scottish Government recently issued a public consultation on a future Agriculture Bill, setting out plans for Scotland “to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.”

 

It would be fair to say that the AgBill consultation has not been universally welcomed, with concerns from many organisations representing farmers and allied sectors that the document lacks clarity and detail on the future direction for productive and sustainable farming in Scotland.

 

Plant breeders understand and share those concerns, and we support calls for constructive dialogue on a future strategy that protects food security, food production and Scotland’s agricultural supply chain, and which will contribute significantly to the country’s economy whilst delivering for the environment and biodiversity.

      

However, one particular section of the AgBill consultation document, entitled ‘Plant Genetic Resources and Plant Health’, is detailed and explicit in acknowledging the importance of crop genetic improvement for more sustainable agriculture, and in its commitment to conserving diverse plant genetic resources. 

 

This section recognises that genetic diversity among domesticated plants and their wild relatives provides the foundation for plant breeders to develop resilient new varieties and agricultural systems, and that faced with increased pressure from pests, diseases and a changing climate, as well as a drive to reduce pesticide and fertiliser inputs, a broad plant genetic resource base will be vital in ensuring future food security. The consultation document even suggests that additional funding for the conservation of plant genetic resources may be necessary.

 

From a plant breeding perspective, this is music to our ears.

 

Maintaining access to genetic diversity is absolutely central to the business of crop improvement. The first gene banks were set up by plant breeders in the 1930s to conserve the valuable genetic diversity in past and present varieties, as well as landraces and wild relatives of cultivated crop species. Globally, it is estimated that plant breeding companies commit an average of 5% of their research budget to conserving genetic resources.

And these resources provide the foundation for more productive, sustainable agriculture. Last year, a major study by HFFA Research GmbH concluded that, since 2000, progress in plant breeding has accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops. Without the contribution of improved crop varieties over the past 20 years, the HFFA study found that UK crop yields would be 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed in other parts of the world to meet our food needs, placing additional pressure on scarce global resources and causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions.

However, the HFFA study also highlighted the challenges of maintaining current rates of yield improvement, and underlined the critical importance of access to new breeding techniques, such as gene editing, with the potential to accelerate the rate of progress in crop innovation.

I would therefore urge the Scottish Government to help ensure the full potential of these resources can be unlocked by changing its stance on the regulation of these newer, more precise breeding technologies.

Scottish Ministers have so far indicated their opposition to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill currently going through the Westminster Parliament.

Where changes to a plant’s genetic make-up could equally have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, this legislation will exempt plant varieties developed using advanced breeding technologies such as gene editing from restrictive GMO rules inherited from the EU, instead regulating them in the same way as conventional varieties. This mirrors the regulatory approach already adopted in other countries such as Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and the United States.

But the basis for ScotGov’s opposition to the Precision Breeding Bill appears to be shifting. Until relatively recently, the standard line from Ministers was that technologies such as gene editing pose a threat to the ‘clean and green’ image of Scottish agriculture and food production.

The Scottish Government has, however, also indicated that its policy is to stay aligned with the EU, and that it is closely monitoring the EU’s position on the issue of new breeding techniques.   

Here things appear to be changing fast. Faced with concerns that Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic, and advancing climate change are all impacting global food security and world food prices, the EU now appears to be moving rapidly to update its legislation to allow the use of advanced breeding methods such as gene editing.

 

Following the recent Council meeting of EU farm ministers in Prague, the Czech Presidency issued the following statement:

 

“Ministers agreed that the EU must react as quickly as possible to the development of modern trends and not hinder innovation. It is, therefore, important to change the outdated legislative framework by which the EU regulates the use of modern plant breeding methods. This framework not only restricts European farmers, but also leads to an outflow of experts to countries outside the EU, so the damage is extraordinary.”

A recent EU public consultation also found that 80% of the 2200 participants consider existing GMO rules as not fit-for-purpose to regulate plant varieties developed using techniques such as gene editing. Regulatory change is supported in the EU by a large majority of citizens, academia and research institutions, companies and business associations, public authorities, as well as most trade unions. Only environmental organisations and some consumer NGOs argued for the status quo.

Against a background of war, climate change and rising food and energy costs, and with the momentum for change building at EU level, the case for ScotGov to adopt a more enabling and science-based approach to the regulation of more precise breeding methods, such as gene editing, seems unarguable.   

As Finlay Carson MSP, convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee in the Scottish Parliament,  recently observed, these technologies can deliver the same outcomes as traditional breeding methods, but in a fraction of the time.

I strongly support his call, alongside Scotland’s farmers, scientists and agribusinesses, for Scottish Ministers to re-think their approach and let plant scientists, breeders and farmers use more advanced technologies such as gene editing.

 

This will be vital to realise the full potential of efforts to conserve genetic resources for future food security.

 

Samantha Brooke is chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB).