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GENETIC TECHNOLOGY BILL MUST BE SCIENCE-BASED

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has raised concerns with MPs that, as currently drafted, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill currently before Parliament may fail to unlock the investment and advances in plant breeding innovation needed to address urgent food security, climate change and sustainable farming goals. 

In a briefing paper sent to all 650 MPs in advance of the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday (15 June), BSPB emphasises the plant breeding industry’s 100% support for the Government’s stated ambitions to take precision breeding techniques out of the scope of restrictive GMO rules, to align our approach with other countries, and to provide greater access to more precise new breeding methods with the potential to accelerate progress in crop-related innovation at a time when it is increasingly needed.

The briefing also makes clear that BSPB fully supports the statutory notification process set out in the Bill to confirm the status of a ‘Precision Bred Organism’ (PBO), as well as provision for a public register of PBOs to support transparency and provision of public information.

However, the briefing alerts MPs to concerns shared by plant breeders, scientists, and others, that Section 3 of the Bill, providing ministerial powers to impose new traceability and food and feed safety risk assessments overseen by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), may add unnecessary requirements and costs to the use of these techniques which are not scientifically justified – and which do not currently apply to conventionally bred crop varieties.

BSPB has warned that the introduction of these ’GM-style’ regulatory hurdles, without scientific justification, may adversely affect plans for investment in the UK, and reduce access to the environmental and economic benefits these new technologies can deliver.

The briefing points to scientific opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Health Canada which state unequivocally that gene editing techniques pose no greater risks than conventional breeding methods. Indeed, the Health Canada scientific opinion, issued in May 2022, states:

“..it is the scientific opinion of Health Canada that gene editing technologies do not present any unique or specifically identifiable food safety concerns as compared to other technologies of plant development. Therefore, gene-edited plant products should be regulated like all other products of plant breeding.

Backing the Health Canada position, the BSPB briefing also makes clear that existing plant variety registration and seed marketing regulations, underpinned by general food safety, novel food and environmental protection law, have an impeccable track record of safety stretching back over many decades and, as such, provide a comprehensive regulatory framework equally capable of embracing varieties developed using newer precision breeding techniques.

BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke said:

“UK plant breeders have been at the forefront of calls for more science-based regulation of these new breeding technologies, and for Britain to align itself with the rules of other countries such as Canada, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, which do not treat the products of these techniques as GMOs.”

“With the European Union now moving at pace to update its own regulations following an April 2021 study by the EU Commission which concluded that the bloc’s GMO regulations are not fit for purpose to cover new precision breeding techniques, we are urging MPs to guard against an outcome in which arrangements in England turn out to be more onerous, and less science-based, than in the EU from whose restrictive rules we originally sought to diverge.”

“The existing regulatory framework to bring forward a new plant variety – involving at least two years of field trials and performance, genetic stability and quality tests – is robust, proven and fit for purpose. We are calling on MPs to ensure that the Precision Breeding Bill supports equitable access to precision breeding techniques, whether for SMEs, public sector researchers, university spin-outs or large multinational corporations. That means ensuring regulatory requirements are science-based, not ‘just in case’. BSPB will also be asking the Food Standards Agency to clarify, in the context of international scientific opinions from food safety bodies such as EFSA and Health Canada, how plans for a GM-style regulatory process for Precision Bred Organisms aligns with its guiding regulatory principles of proportionality and non-discrimination,” she said.