Farming: Time for Scotland to rethink policy on gene-editing - Andrew Arbuckle

I am told by my anonymous source within the Scottish Government that there is a highly confidential policy room with all sorts of instructions posted up on the walls.

One of the pieces of advice displayed there for the guidance of Nationalist MSPs has been there a long time. It just states “say no whenever questions about genetics are mentioned.”

An important point is the note has the signature NS on it and therefore it has to be obeyed.

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I have not seen it myself but according to my usually reliable mole the note gives advice on how to respond to pesky journalists when they raise questions on genetic issues.

“Refer to Scotland’s current status as a green and pleasant land and it must be kept in this pristine state,” is the advice given. Then it adds, “That normally shakes off the newshounds. If you need to go further, then refer to European restrictions on genetically modified crops and that Scotland cannot be out of step with the EU even if we are no longer part of it.”

Although I cannot testify to the veracity of the information leakage, I can confirm that over many years that has been the gist of the responses I have had from Nationalist politicians and that has been their position on genetic modification for a long time.

When GM crops first hit the headlines, the science provoked a strong reaction from both politicians and members of the public. Now as molecular science has developed, there is a surge of interest in gene editing.

For those non scientists among us, the simplified and non-scientific explanation of the difference between the two is that modification includes the addition of genetic material to a plant while gene editing involves identifying disease free or disease resistant genes already in the DNA of the plant and prioritises them in the production of new cultivars. In other words, “Nothing added. Nothing removed. Just optimising what is already there.”

When GM first hit the headlines, I knew that whenever I wrote a piece on this branch of science, a flurry of abusive letters would, shortly thereafter, land on my desk. Many of which raised questions on my parentage and on the spectre of being swamped by what the letter writers called ‘Frankenstein’s foods.’

As time has worn on and no one has died from eating GM food as well as many people now being protected from keeling over with covid after being injected with a GM based vaccine, the clamour of opposition has melted away

The Precision Breeding Bill, introduced this past week by the UK Government would allow gene editing but unless there is a change in attitude by the Scottish Government to such work it will only be allowed South of the Border.

Apart from the Scottish Government seeming to have a knee jerk opposition to most things suggested by Westminster, there is widespread support for the Bill with farming leaders pointing to possible benefits.

NFUS president, Martin Kennedy pointed out the environmental pluses from growing potato crops with an inbred resistance to that most troublesome disease of blight and, in another potential benefit of gene editing, growing cereals without constantly trailing through fields spraying fungicides.

Similarly, the scientists working in establishments such as the Roslin and the James Hutton Institutes will be able to see their work going out into the public domain.

If the Scottish Government continues with its opposition to any ‘editing’ we could be in the strange situation of English farmers possibly benefitting from scientific developments emerging from Scottish research stations while Scottish farmers are left looking over their proverbial farm gates.

Last week, the First Minister was programmed to celebrate her longevity as Scottish leader by announcing another push for independence until she was, in the words of my mole “couped over by the covid.”

In wishing her well in getting back on her pins, I would ask that she should maybe consider allowing gene editing as a high priority.

It will not be a silver bullet curing all ills, but it can take us along the road of providing more food grown with reduced pesticides and that must be a good thing

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