Why Scotland should consider changing the law to enable gene editing of animals and crops – Dr Belinda Clarke

Scotland could lead an informed debate on outdated legislation that is stifling innovation in plant and animal breeding, offering benefits for health, food security and the environment.

Research is being carried out into gene editing to give salmon greater resistance to major diseases (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Regulation can hinder or stimulate innovation, so with advances in knowledge and technologies it is vital to review that legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

We have recently seen huge advances in understanding of genomics, the information that is needed to build an organism, and use of new gene-editing techniques has led to breakthroughs in medicine, including the development of a vaccine for Covid-19.

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Scotland now has an opportunity to realise the benefits of these techniques in agriculture, too.

Traditional breeding selects plants or animals with perceived benefits and breeds from these to produce offspring with the desired traits, but this process can take many generations to perfect. Hundreds of years of conventional breeding has also reduced the diversity of the genetic pool, making many staple crops vulnerable to disease.

Advances in breeding techniques make it possible to identify at a genetic level the genes that code for desired characteristics, accelerating the process and offering new ways to improve resilience to disease or adverse environments.

Gene editing involves changes to the organism’s own genome, which could have arisen through natural selection. This process is distinct from genetic modification (GM) where genetic material is introduced from a different species to achieve the characteristic.

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Gene editing is being developed in aquaculture species of major importance to the Scottish economy, particularly salmon. The main focus of research in this area is to confer resistance to major diseases of salmon, resulting in improved animal health, reduced economic losses and lower environmental impacts.

Scotland is currently aligned to EU legislation that does not make a distinction between gene editing and genetic modification, built instead on the precautionary principle.

Although scientists are not directly affected by the current legislation, as it doesn’t apply to research, it been heavily inhibitory to animal breeding companies adding the technology to their breeding programmes, and this has restricted the investment and adoption of potentially valuable genetic research.

Scientists including Professor Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh would like to see the regulations become proportionate to the risk, arguing that this risk is not related to the technology used, but rather the product created.

Professor Sang explains that Scotland has the authority to regulate independently of any position taken by the UK Parliament, stressing that it is important for the Scottish government to consider the benefits of gene editing, in consultation with the public, to take a role in developing regulations that are internationally compatible, to ensure its place in international trade.

For example, bird flu is a disease transmitted by migratory water birds, which infects poultry as well as humans. It is currently controlled in some countries by widespread use of antiviral medicine. This is dangerous, as it reduces the efficacy of the drug for use in humans.

Work at the Roslin Institute is investigating how gene editing can be used to breed chickens resistant to the virus, thus removing the need for antivirals. This ‘one health’ approach could be applied to other diseases and would bring greater protection against zoonotic diseases that can spread to humans.

There are two ways to improve the legislation. The current EU legislation takes a ‘process-based’ approach that focuses on the technology used to develop the product. This could potentially be refined to make a distinction between the different genetic technologies.

Moves towards this re-classification have come with the recent European Commission study into the regulatory status of novel genomic techniques (NGTs) which acknowledged a difference between gene editing and genetic modification.

An alternative could be a ‘product-based’ approach that looks at the properties of the end product and is agnostic about the technology used. This product approach could be used to expand the existing system used to regulate non-GM plant varieties and seeds. This system is focused on the attributes of each variety, not how it was bred. It provides a proven vehicle and could embrace the new technologies.

The benefits from updating the legislation, in consultation with all stakeholders, are multiple. Legislation that is fit for purpose would enable greater investment in technologies that have the potential for huge societal benefit.

Clarity on labelling would enable informed choices by consumers and also to ensure that farmers would be able to meet the certification requirements of their markets. A more transparent and workable regulatory system would also enable appropriate safety measures to be implemented.

Lastly, change offers a major competitive advantage. Scotland has capabilities in gene editing that position it as a world leader in this field, with much to gain from influencing legislation on an international stage.

For example, gene editing has huge potential to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. This could be crucial as Glasgow gets set to host the UN climate change conference.

Livestock emit methane, a major greenhouse gas, as a biproduct of digestion, but these emissions can be reduced with genomic knowledge, as proven by the animal breeding and genomics team at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), led by Professor Mike Coffey. The team has created a ‘feed efficiency index’ to identify which animals are best at converting feed to meat. The index could enable Scottish farmers to cut feed by at least 15 per cent, reducing methane whilst maintaining production.

Professors Mike Coffey and Helen Sang will be discussing this topic further on September 23 in an online event open to all. Search for ‘Advances in breeding for agriculture – new tools for new solutions’ to get involved.

Now is the time to improve regulations and release the benefits of advances in breeding, for Scotland and for the planet.

Dr Belinda Clarke is director of membership organisation Agri-TechE

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