Genetic Technology Bill to address the most pressing environmental issues of our time

Legislation to unlock new technologies to increase food production and help farmers grow higher-yielding crops will return to Parliament today – paving the way for the UK to become the best place in the world to engage in research and innovation in agriculture investing in agri-food

The third reading of the bill is scheduled for today (Monday 31 October) and is expected to be presented in the House of Lords the following day.

Introducing a more proportionate and science-based regulatory regime for precision-bred plants and animals will open up opportunities to develop crops that are more resilient to diseases and the effects of climate change, such as drought and floods, and less dependent on pesticides.

Agriculture Secretary Mark Spencer said:

We are already seeing how new genetic technologies can increase yields, make our food more nutritious, and result in crops that are more resilient to disease and extreme weather.

British scientists are world leaders in precision breeding and this law will put Britain at the forefront of agricultural research and innovation – opening the door to more investment and continuing our work to give farmers the tools they need to innovate and grow The use of new, intelligent products requires technologies.

The Genetic Engineering (Precision Breeding) Act covers precision-bred plants and animals developed through techniques such as gene editing, where the genetic changes may have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. This differs from genetic modification (GM), which produces organisms that contain additional genes.

Although there is great potential for increasing innovation, the government recognizes the need to ensure animal welfare in the new regulatory framework. Therefore, we are pursuing a step-by-step approach that enables the use of precision breeding technologies first with plants and later with animals.

Gideon Henderson, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser said:

This is an important time for agricultural science. The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms that traditional breeding can mimic enables the development of new varieties of plants that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, more resilient to drought, and heat due to climate change.

For centuries, traditional breeders have used our understanding of genetics to breed plant varieties with desirable traits. Gene editing allows precision breeding to make the same type of genetic changes in a far more efficient and precise manner, greatly reducing the time it takes to create new strains. Precision breeding is a powerful and important tool in helping us address the challenges of biodiversity and climate change, while feeding a still-growing world population.

Professor Nigel Halford, Plant Scientist at Rothamsted Research said:

It is tremendously exciting to see how this bill plays out in the House of Lords, as it will pave the way for this powerful technology to be used to improve crops, not just for research.

We are already behind much of the world in using precision breeding techniques and want the law to come into force as soon as possible.

Further information:

The bill will:

  • Exempt plants and animals produced by precision breeding technologies from the regulatory requirements that apply to the release and commercialization of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) into the environment.
  • Introduction of two notification systems; one for precision grown organisms for research purposes and the other for marketing purposes. The information collected will be published in a public register on GOV.UK.
  • Establish an appropriate regulation system for precision-bred animals to ensure animal welfare. We will not introduce any changes to the animal regulations until this system is in place.
  • Establish a new science-based approval process for food and feed developed using precision-bred plants and animals.

Opportunities through the new legislation:

Climate Resilient Wheat

  • Developing wheat that is resilient to climate change will help increase food production from a crop that 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on.
  • Researchers at the John Innes Center in Norwich have used gene editing techniques to identify a key gene in wheat that can be used to introduce traits such as heat resistance while maintaining high yield.
  • This discovery provides an exciting opportunity to identify variations in the gene that may confer climate change resilience on wheat cultivars.

Non-browning banana

  • Bananas are an important food crop globally – but there is significant wastage, with over 50% going unconsumed and 10% to 15% lost to post-harvest crushing.
  • Tropic, a leading agricultural biotechnology company in the UK, has recently developed a browning-free banana using precision breeding techniques.
  • Given the fruit’s high perishability, this innovation has the potential to reduce the amount of bananas wasted, reduce carbon emissions and provide increased revenue for farmers.

Disease Resistant Chickens

  • Avian flu is a major threat to farm chickens worldwide, with some strains killing up to 100 percent of the birds in a flock. In some cases, variants of the virus can infect humans and cause serious illness.
  • In a collaboration between Imperial College London, the Pirbright Institute and the Roslin Institute, a research study has revealed the potential in using gene editing to breed chickens resistant to the disease. Due to the genetic modification, the virus could no longer multiply in cells.
  • The use of gene editing could help stem the spread of the disease, which is badly needed to protect chickens and reduce risk to human health.

About Rothamsted Research:

Rothamsted Research is a world-leading, not-for-profit research center focused on strategic agricultural science for the benefit of farmers and society worldwide.

It is also the longest-standing agricultural research facility in the world, dating back to 1843.

Its main goals include:

  • Deliver expertise, data, better practices, and new technologies to improve performance, resiliency, and value.
  • Increase the productivity of crop and animal husbandry systems.
  • Controlling weed, disease and insect resistance to agrochemicals and improving soil health.
  • Enhance natural capital and reduce agriculture’s carbon and nutrient footprint.
  • Add novel nutritional, health and bioeconomic value to plants and other products.

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