Farming: Precision breeding techniques are still on the agenda

A top-level meeting of UK and devolved government farming ministers palnned for this week’s Royal Welsh was due to thrash out a united approach to precision breeding technologies before it was postponed.

Professor Jane Langdale of Oxford University
Professor Jane Langdale of Oxford University

But while internet connection problems which hampered the participation of those who had planned to attend the meeting remotely meant the discussions failed to materialise, Defra confirmed that negotiating a UK-wide relaxation of the current regulations surrounding the use of techniques such as gene editing would remain central to the talks.

“Precision breeding technologies, such as gene editing, have great potential and can help us reduce pesticide use, lower costs to farmers, increase food production and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” Defra said.

A spokesperson said that the Bill currently passing through Westminster would remove what he termed “unnecessary red tape” inherited from the EU in order to create a simpler and more proportionate regulatory regime. They added that this would help farmers to grow more resistant, more nutritious and more productive crops - and position the UK as a world leader in research and innovation.

”We are keen that all parts of the UK have the ability to unlock the potential of these technologies and are having ongoing discussions on the proposed policy changes with the devolved administrations to manage any divergence.”

But while the UK Government has made plain its belief that precision breeding techniques such as gene editing would allow the development of plant varieties and animals with beneficial traits which could also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes, the Scottish administration has long declared its intention to stick with the current EU regulatory approach which adopts restrictions equivalent to those applied to older, transgenic genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, Defra said that while Westminster’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill would create a simpler regulatory regime for the development and marketing of precision-bred plants and animals, it claimed it would also include a new “proportionate” regulatory regime, with regulatory changes for plants being addressed first followed by animals.

“We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulations that protect people, animals, and the environment. We will not reduce safety or animal welfare standards,” said the spokesperson.

*The meeting was due to take place at a time when a leading plant scientist was calling upon the UK Government to go further and faster in its approach to promoting the benefits of genetic research and development.

Professor Jane Langdale of Oxford University – who led and authored a major review of UK plant science last year – said that the lack of long-term strategic funding for transferring early-stage genetic discoveries from lab to field to farm remained “one of the most significant barriers to future productivity gains”.

In an article on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website she said that while government investment in digital and precision farming projects such as robotic harvesters, AI and sensor technology was to be welcomed, it would be worthless without also supporting corresponding gains in genetic potential.


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