“Precision Farming Bill could increase investment in UK crop innovation”

Legislation to be debated by peers in the House of Lords over the next few weeks could help unlock the UK’s global leadership in plant genetics and encourage further investment in research to help tackle the toughest farming challenges. urgent today.

According to Professor Mario Caccamo, CEO of UK crop science organization NIAB, precision breeding techniques such as gene editing will help accelerate the development of higher yielding, more nutritious crops that are more resilient to climate change. and less dependent on pesticides or fertilizers. . But he warns that attempts to add more layers of scientifically unwarranted precautions to the Gene Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill could blunt Britain’s gene-editing revolution.

The Gene Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill could mark a turning point for UK-led innovation in plant genetics.

It is the first time in decades that UK regulations have sought to allow, rather than restrict, the use of advanced genetic technologies in agriculture. As a result, interest in Britain as a potential location for research investment is already growing.

Over the past 20 or so years, the direction of crop science investment has been one-way – from the UK to parts of the world such as North and South America, which have adopted more favorable.

Over this period, remarkably and thanks to public sector investment, the UK has maintained its leadership in basic research in plant genetics and gene discovery. This new legislation could help accelerate the private sector investments needed to unlock potentially significant advances for more sustainable agricultural systems, reduced waste in the food supply chain, improved nutrition and climate resilience.

Indeed, the introduction of the bill and the approval earlier this year of a more proportionate regulatory regime for experimental field trials of genetically modified crops have led to positive conversations between NIAB and research partners. potential and commercial investors.

We are already seeing increased interest in UK-based research investment and strategic partnerships following the Bill and the signals it sends that the UK policy and regulatory framework is set on a more favorable trajectory. to innovation outside the EU.

It is important to note that this interest comes not only from domestic investors, but also from abroad.

Potential investors and research partners want access to the genome sequencing and gene editing expertise available at NIAB in cereals, legumes, and horticultural crops, as well as our state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities. technology and our national field testing and data science capabilities. .

NIAB is already leading a number of research projects involving gene editing whose prospects for commercial application could be boosted by the bill’s provisions, including celiac-safe wheat, improved nitrogen and water use efficiency in wheat and varying the flowering time of strawberries to extend the domestic growing season.

Greater access to more precise breeding technologies would also boost NIAB’s ongoing efforts to unlock the genetic potential of neglected legume crops, such as peas and faba beans, to provide a home-grown source of protein with benefits for sustainable agriculture, healthy food and climate change. .

The goal of gene editing research at NIAB is to help develop crops and agricultural systems that are less dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilizers and that reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change.

These are all important goals, widely shared across the political spectrum, for which new breeding technologies can offer tangible solutions. With the pace of climate change and the insecurity of global supply chains, there is no time to lose.

It is therefore disappointing, as the bill reaches a critical stage in the House of Lords, that some peers seem determined to ignore the science and play politics on such a critical issue.

No higher risk profile
The underlying premise of the bill is that a precision-bred organism could have arisen naturally or as a result of conventional selection. Scientific advice from the government’s own independent scientific advisers, as well as leading regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Health Canada, have confirmed that the risk profile of GM crops is not no higher than that of conventionally bred crops.

Our existing regulatory regime for conventional breeding, which over its 100 year history NIAB has played a key role in developing and refining, has operated for decades with an impeccable record of safety and efficacy in marketing of improved crop varieties. This system could also apply to varieties developed using precision breeding techniques.

Through amendments to the bill to add more layers of unnecessary regulation, whether in relation to additional public good criteria, regulatory labeling, environmental risk assessments and new food regulations food and animal feed, we are not only ignoring the science – which confirms that the risk profile of precision-bred products is no higher than that of conventionally farmed products – but also the damaging precedents for such a course of action.

It is worth recalling the impact of the last major overhaul of our regulations on genetic technologies which took place more than 20 years ago.

In the mistaken belief that adding layer after layer of regulatory controls and safeguards would instil public confidence, new requirements on GMO products have been introduced at all levels, from more stringent requirements in from labeling and traceability to additional feeding studies, long-term indirect risk assessments, and cumulative environmental effects, and new post-market surveillance requirements.

Rather than promoting public trust, these disproportionate precautionary requirements have simply fueled increased consumer perception of risk. This has led to a virtual halt to GM research activity in Europe, rapid disinvestment from the region to other parts of the world with more favorable regulatory regimes, and widespread exclusion of GM products and ingredients by EU supply chains. Meanwhile, the continent continues to depend on millions of tonnes of imported genetically modified animal feed, and European farmers, the food industry, consumers and the environment have missed out on the cultivation technology fastest adopted never recorded.

A recent study by Japanese researchers confirmed this effect. Government regulations can and do influence consumer perceptions of risks and benefits. This comparison of consumer attitudes in the United States, Germany and Japan revealed that more restrictive regulation of genetically modified foods tends to heighten, rather than appease, public concerns and perceptions of risk, while that consumers in countries with less stringent regulations are more likely to recognize the benefits of gene editing in food and agriculture.

The most recent impact study by British agricultural economist Graham Brookes, covering the 24-year period from 1996 to 2020, concluded that GM crop technology resulted in a $261 billion increase in farm income, ie an average farm income gain of about $112 per hectare, with these gains distributed 52% to farmers in developing countries and 48% to farmers in developed countries.

Over the same period, the technology has increased global production of food, feed and fiber by nearly one billion tonnes while helping farmers reduce the environmental impact associated with their farming practices. agricultural production by more than 17%. Adopting GM crops also reduced carbon emissions by 39.1 billion kilograms, resulting in a reduction in fuel consumption of 14.7 billion liters and the equivalent of taking 25.9 million cars off the road. .

In all that time, there has not been a single proven case of harm resulting from the technology. As Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Richard Roberts recently observed, “For 30 years we’ve been growing these crops, and people are eating them, and there hasn’t been a single problem.”

Against a backdrop of war, climate change and rising food and energy costs – and with 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – farmers everywhere will need access to all the tools available to sustainably meet the challenge. of global food security.

Politicians, regulators and legislators must be very careful what they wish for in seeking to impose scientifically unjustified barriers to the use of new breeding technologies, as they will discourage their adoption, undermining the ambition of Great Britain. Britain to become a scientific superpower.

Professor Mario Caccamo was appointed CEO of NIAB in October 2021. A computer scientist, he has over 20 years of experience in life science research and big data, including specific projects to apply the latest sequencing technologies to DNA and bioinformatics methods to advance the scientific understanding of cultures. genetics and the interaction of agricultural crops with their environment. Mario led the work on assembling the first whole genome version of the wheat reference sequence and was also one of the founding co-chairs of the expert working group within the Wheat Initiative focused on the deployment of an international wheat information system. He continues his leadership role in the cereal bioinformatics communities nationally and internationally.

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