Institutes on the Norwich Research Park making up what is a global hub for gene editing of plants, have previously welcomed the UK government’s introduction of enabling legislation to allow commercialisation of this technology.
Today’s second reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill included a debate of the pros and cons of the Government’s approach to this important subject. The debate was on Parliament TV and you can watch it from 17:28. One of the speakers was local MP James Wild and this is what he had to say:
“It is a pleasure to support this legislation, which is part of the Brexit dividend that gives us the freedom to regulate to support innovation. Unlike the stifling, overly complex EU regime, we have the exciting opportunity to take a proportionate, science-based approach to precision breeding. This is a welcome part of the Government’s focus on science and technology to drive economic growth. My county of Norfolk, and specifically the Norwich Research Park, is well placed to help realise these benefits, as it is home to not only world leading research institutes, but gene editing companies. Of course, it also plays a crucial role in our food production.
It is important to be clear what this Bill is about and what it is not about. Precision breeding is about enabling DNA to be edited much more efficiently and precisely than current breeding techniques to produce beneficial traits. Crucially, these traits can occur through traditional breeding and natural processes. Indeed under clause 1 that is a requirement in order to be classified as a “precision bred organism.” As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, this does not involve adding DNA from a different organism, so this is not about genetically modified organisms. Of course, people will want reassurance about the safety of these techniques. The expert independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment has stated that precision bred organisms “posed no greater risk than their traditionally bred or naturally arising counterparts.”
By adopting a more agile regulatory approach, the time taken to comply with existing GMO regulation for getting precision bred crops to market will be cut from an estimated 10 years to just one. That is a huge win to accelerate innovation, and secure productivity and efficiency gains in crop production.
The real world benefits are significant, as we see if we just think about the disease-resistant crops that reduce the need for pesticides and fertilisers. In my constituency, the yields of sugar beet have been wiped out considerably in recent years, as the Secretary of State said. The UK Research and Innovation-funded study has identified sources of genetic resistance that would reduce the need for neonicotinoids—for pesticides—thus helping to protect the environment, increase food production and reduce costs to farmers. There is also the potential for crops to withstand changing climates, and there are also health and nutritional benefits. Colleagues have referred to the pioneering work that the John Innes Centre is doing to produce precision bred, high vitamin D tomatoes. In addition, tomato leaves are usually only waste material, but by editing the genes, those leaves could be used to make vitamin D supplements, thus reducing waste.
The disproportionate approach by the EU led to advanced breeding being moved outside the EU, and now we can take a lead in catalysing food science and innovation, and attracting inward investment. We can do so on the basis that precision bred organisms that have occurred naturally, or through conventional methods, should not face unnecessary layers of regulation. That was the original rationale of the Bill. As others have said, there are real concerns among crop and plant breeders that the power to introduce sweeping new regulations under part 3 of the Bill could see the introduction of additional new hurdles that are not scientifically justified—new requirements that do not apply to conventionally bred crop varieties. That would be a major disincentive to bringing these new techniques in. It is essential that we do not remove the EU bureaucratic rules only to allow the FSA to reimpose requirements that are not proportionate or necessary. Otherwise, what is the point in diverging from the EU approach?
In conclusion, I look for an assurance from the Minister that this opportunity to boost our agritech sector will be based firmly on a proportionate approach, and that during the passage of the Bill commitments will be made and included in the legislation to ensure a light-touch, low-cost and pro-innovation approach.”