Last week, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill was introduced in the Commons. The Bill’s essential purpose is to allow gene-edited food products to be placed on the UK market. It is a significantly important piece of legislation, facilitated by the new flexibilities provided by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
Gene-editing (GE), put simply, is a process whereby sections of an organism’s DNA are “snipped”. It enables the precision breeding of new varieties of plants and animals that are more resilient to disease, water shortages or pests.
The process is different from gene modification (GM), which adds DNA to the organism, sometimes from a wholly different species. GE simply accelerates the process of selective breeding, which, using traditional methods, may take very many years.
The potential benefits of GE are huge. For example, scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory have created a new tomato, “Tomelo”, which is resistant to powdery mildew infection. This will help reduce the need to use fungicides and thus improve the quality of British tomatoes. Similarly, GE could be used to develop animal feeds that produce less methane, helping the fight against global warming.
The confusion between GE and GM is regrettable. It was not eased by the stance of the European Union. Under EU law, now some 30 years old, GM and GE are regulated identically. Leaving the EU has given the UK the opportunity to adopt a more science-based and proportionate approach to regulating GE organisms. The EU is currently consulting on bringing forward similar legislation to the UK’s, but the process is likely to take significantly longer. The UK, consequently, is ahead of the field in Europe in adopting precision breeding.
However, the Bill, initially at least, will apply to England only. The Welsh Government was offered the opportunity to join the Westminster Government in adopting it, but has so far declined to do so.
This is a huge pity. Agriculture is an important element of the Welsh economy, and Welsh agriculturists should be allowed to use the new precision breeding techniques.
The Welsh farming union, NFU Cymru, says the legislation will not only provide a route to market for improved crop varieties, but allow farmers here to continue producing sustainable climate-friendly food for less.
Similarly, Welsh academics have welcomed the opportunities presented by precision breeding. The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science (IBERS), a world-leading research centre at Aberystwyth University, has acknowledged the benefits of gene-editing in its response to Defra’s consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies.
Dr Cate Williams of IBERS noted how, with the correct use of gene-editing, “the DEFRA consultation will be a welcome chance to update the now 30-year-old EU regulations that do not consider the most up to date technologies available”.
In the face of this support from the Welsh agriculture sector, it is disappointing that the Welsh Government has passed up the chance to adopt the Westminster legislation.
This is an opportunity Wales must not miss. The Welsh Government should think again.