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As the EU stalls, leading plant breeder warns that England must not let precision breeding opportunity slip

With little progress now expected on the stalled gene editing file at EU level until 2026 at the earliest, plant breeder Nigel Moore says Britain has a golden opportunity to steal a march on our European counterparts, and to deliver on the Government’s vision to make the UK a science and technology superpower. 

But he warns that this precision breeding opportunity could be at risk, due to concerns that provisions in the secondary legislation needed to implement the Precision Breeding Act might lead to unduly restrictive GM-style risk assessments and data requirements, and that the timetable for adopting the implementing regulations could be running out of road before a General Election is called.

Writing on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website, Mr Moore – a former chair of the British Society of Plant Breeders and a past president of European plant breeders’ body Euroseeds – notes that England’s Precision Breeding Act has attracted strong interest from potential investors and innovators at home and overseas.

“There is already strong interest in Britain as a target market for PB products, not only for UK-based research and plant breeding innovation, but also for inward investment. For example, three US companies, J R Simplot Co., Pairwise and Cibus, have all discussed plans to bring gene edited crops to the market in England.

“Potential applications range from longer-flowering strawberry plants which yield five times as much fruit as their non-edited counterparts, to baby potatoes with ‘bunched’ root architecture which allow almost three times as many tubers to be produced from the same area of farmland, and pod-shatter resistant oilseed rape varieties which help minimise harvest losses and reduce the need for volunteer weed control in subsequent seasons.”

Mr Moore also welcomes a trebling of Government funding for the Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs) as a key mechanism for translating new genetic knowledge into commercially relevant applications, and applauds Defra for establishing a new Ministerial working group – bringing together plant breeders, farmers, food manufacturers and retailers – with a remit to get precision bred products from farms onto supermarket shelves.

But he warns that England risks missing out on the chance to capitalise on the Precision Breeding Act, due to concerns over the long-awaited secondary legislation needed to implement the Act.

These concerns are on two fronts, he explains.

Firstly, that the text of the draft implementing regulations notified by Defra to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in April, and therefore assumed to be the basis for the secondary legislation due to be laid in Parliament, undermines the original scientific basis for the Act – i.e. that precision bred products pose no greater risks than their conventionally bred counterparts. This could pave the way for scientifically unjustified and potentially open-ended risk assessments and data requirements for the authorisation of PB food and feed products, he warns.

“Despite the Food Standards Agency’s assurances that it plans to operate a light-touch notification process for precision bred products, the draft implementing rules as they stand open the door to legal challenge by opponents, and to the possible introduction of GMO-style risk assessments under a future administration. This will certainly be focusing the minds of potential applicants.”  

Secondly, Mr Moore warns that the Parliamentary timetable for adopting the implementing regulations could be running out of road.

“The WTO notification […] indicates that the UK Government plans to lay the implementing regulations in July 2024. The average time required for ‘affirmative procedure’ secondary legislation such as this, according to the UK Parliament website, is six to seven weeks. Taking into account the summer recess starting on 23 July, and amid expectations that the Prime Minister will call a General Election at some point in the autumn – with Parliament dissolved six weeks beforehand – this leaves precious little time for the secondary legislation to complete its Parliamentary scrutiny. It is certainly an incredibly tight timetable for such a flagship piece of legislation.”

This runs a serious risk that the secondary legislation could fail, he cautions, and that the task of bringing forward new implementing regulations will fall to the next administration. This in turn could mean further uncertainty, he suggests. For example, a prospective Labour Government may instinctively seek greater alignment with the EU timetable and process, bringing further delays.                

Mr Moore urges MPs and Peers on all sides to recognise the risks of consigning British agriculture to the slow lane of science and technology, and to press Defra and FSA for fast and effective secondary legislation to be adopted during this Parliamentary term.

“Britain can take a genuinely world-leading position in the development and commercialisation of these transformational technologies. As the EU stalls, we must not let that opportunity slip.”

Nigel Moore’s original article, entitled ‘As the EU stalls, England must not let precision breeding opportunity slip’, is available here.

Source: Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Daniel Pearsall, co-ordinator
M: 07770 875455
Image: Credit R-Khalil on Pexels

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