George Eustice, UK cabinet secretary for the environment, food and rural affairs, has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon, highlighting the benefits of gene-editing techniques which can alter an organism’s genetic make-up to delete negative traits and strengthen useful characteristics.
Gene-editing makes changes within a species of plant or animal much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding, which has been used for centuries to create stronger and healthier crops and livestock.
The UK government said the technology could help improve food security, producing crops that are more nutritious, climate-proof or require lower pesticides and fertilisers that damage wildlife, and livestock that is resistant to disease or needs fewer antibiotics.
It could pave the way for rolling out tomato plants that are mildew-resistant to cut fungicide use or are fortified with vitamin D, developing wheat that can cope with higher temperatures and breeding chickens that can withstand bird flu.
Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene-editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and GM, in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.
The letter comes ahead of the introduction of new legislation designed to speed up the development and marketing of gene-edited crops, which is being introduced today.
“The UK is at the vanguard of genetics and genomics research and development, home to well-respected and globally recognised research organisations,” he wrote.
“We want to enable researchers and commercial breeders across the UK to be leaders in the development of crops that are more nutritious, beneficial to the environment, more resilient to climate change, and crops and animals that are resistant to disease and pests.”
A similar letter has been sent to the Welsh government.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly states its opposition to genetically modified crops and has been keen to maintain alignment with the EU’ – placing the same stringent controls on organisms which contain no additional genes or DNA as on transgenic ones which do.
Genetically modified crops cannot be grown in the outdoor environment in Scotland to protect the “clean, green status” of the country’s £14 billion food and drink sector.
Mr Eustice’s letter continued: “We have the opportunity to make the UK the best place in the world to invest in Agritech innovation.
“Through the Bill, we are going to enable plants and animals developed through precision breeding techniques to be authorised and brought to market under a simple regime."
He said academia and industry in Scotland had demonstrated clear support for the moves, and that he had engaged with research organisations such as the Roslin Institute – which famously produced the clone Dolly the Sheep.
“By the Scottish government joining us in taking forward this legislation,” he said, “we would be able to ensure consistency in food regulation and the approach to the precision bred organisms across the UK, upholding our priority of ensuring consumer safety.
"We encourage you to embrace this opportunity to unlock the benefits of scientific research and development in this country."
The National Farmers Union Scotland has backed gene-editing technology.