UK plant breeders support transparency on precision breeding techniques

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Nigel Moore: Science for Sustainable Agriculture

As members of the House of Lords prepare to debate amendments tabled in advance of the Grand Committee stage of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, there will be calls on Government to enforce statutory labelling of food and feed produced from precision bred organisms. But such a requirement would not only contradict the underlying rationale for the Bill that precision-bred products could equally have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, it would also drive up costs to consumers and would, in practice, be unenforceable through testing, writes plant breeder Nigel Moore.

Plant breeders fully support transparency. We have absolutely nothing to hide in relation to our use of precision breeding techniques such as gene editing.  

That’s why the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), representing virtually 100% of UK-based plant breeding activity, has written to Defra Bill Minister Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP to reiterate the Society’s plan to maintain a public register of all precision-bred plant varieties approved for sale in the UK, so enabling choice and openness of information within the supply chain.

This BSPB register will complement the Defra register of approved PBOs, enabling farmers and growers to identify which crop varieties have been developed using precision breeding techniques, and so provide the basis for producers and their supply chains to provide information in response to market and consumer demand. 

The agri-food supply chain is increasingly sophisticated in its response to customer demands, with traceability, digital record keeping and audits now in widespread use as harvested produce is handled, stored and transported, and dedicated systems used to segregate more sensitive or high-value material.

The supply chain currently services a range of market channels in response to differentiated customer demands, eg: 

  • organic and non-organic foods;
  • certified seed and non-seed (commodity) crops;
  • industrial and food grade oilseed rape;
  • different types of wheat for breadmaking, biscuits and animal feed;
  • segregating by named variety (eg Maris Piper potatoes, Pink Lady apples).          

These same principles of market differentiation within the agri-food supply chain can apply equally to the products of new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, if there is differentiated market demand. The BSPB register will ensure openness and transparency right from the point of seed marketing. 

Inevitably, however, any requirement for segregation and separate handling along the supply chain will incur additional costs. In each case, the level of differentiation in the market-place determines the nature – and the cost – of the segregation processes applied. 

As Paul Temple wrote on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website earlier this year, in some instances the value-added nature of gene editing applications may justify those extra costs. 

“Given the consumer-focused nature of many of the gene edited traits and products under development, such as gluten-free wheat, healthier vegetable oils, non-browning apples and potatoes, it is likely that these products will command a premium in the market-place, and therefore equally likely that segregation will be proactively maintained within the agri-food supply chain to protect that added value.”

From a commercial plant breeder’s perspective, however, the single most important opportunity presented by the Genetic Technology Bill is the potential to accelerate progress in crop-related innovation at a time when it is increasingly and urgently needed.  

Precision breeding techniques such as gene editing involve making desired changes to a plant which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision. Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding – for example to improve its yield, end-use quality or resistance to disease – can take up to 15 years, but gene editing can help reduce that timescale significantly.

Speed of selection process

The most likely applications for techniques such as gene editing for plant breeding will be to improve the speed and precision of existing crossing and selection programmes.  

Plant breeders agree with the Government’s position that this is not an issue for mandatory labelling, for a number of reasons:

(i)               There is no safety question – FSA Director of Policy Rebecca Sudworth confirmed in June this year that “there was no proposal for mandatory labelling, because there would be no safety justification for doing so”;

(ii)             mandatory labelling would be a misleading discrimination because the products of precision breeding have the same genetic changes as those achieved through conventional breeding – as former Defra Secretary George Eustice pointed out in the House of Commons “We do not currently, for instance, require people to label that a crop has been produced using an F1 hybrid technique”.

(iii)          it would add unnecessary cost, bringing higher food prices at a time of heightened concern over the cost of living;

(iv)           it would be unenforceable in practice without validated tests to distinguish between precision-bred and conventionally bred varieties.   

The plant breeding industry’s commitment to transparency in relation to the use of precision breeding techniques also builds on the existing, proven systems of statutory plant variety registration, seed certification and seed marketing, which already deliver an assurance of quality, sustainability and traceability in relation to all seed that is commercially marketed of each new crop variety. 

From a breeder’s perspective, it can at times be frustrating watching the political debate play out from the side-lines, with so little recognition given to these existing statutory controls which over many years have delivered a very effective regulatory framework for seeds, which matches the objectives we all expect from agriculture in the face of challenges such as food security, biodiversity loss, climate change and environmental protection.

I would urge members of the House of Lords not to add unnecessary costs and requirements to the development and commercialisation of technologies which not only are urgently and increasingly needed to tackle the looming food and climate crisis but also have already been independently assessed to present no new risks relative to conventional plant breeding.    



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