Seed World

UK Passes Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill 2022-23

The UK’s precision breeding bill — enabling plant breeding while facing hurdles such as climate change, food security and sustainable farming — has been approved by Parliament. This legislation has been updated for the first time in more than two decades, and many are applauding the bill.

Precision breeding allows for genetic changes to continue producing more beneficial traits, which can occur in natural and tradition breeding processes. This process is different from genetic modification where DNA from one species is inserted into another.

Genetic editing has the potential to allow health, environment and commercial benefits to be developed at a quicker pace than traditional breeding. It also has the potentially to help tackle worldwide challenges like food security, climate change and human health challenges. Several countries already cultivate genetically edited crops.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill 2022-23

On May 25, 2022, a new bill, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, was introduced into the UK House of Commons. The bill has now completed its Commons stages with no amendments according to a release. After going in front of the House of Lords, opposition amendments were debated and withdrawn, ending with no divisions.

Following the report stage, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Minister Lord Benyon signified the King’s consent. The bill was read a third time with no further amendments and was sent to the Commons.

While neither the Scottish or Welsh Parliaments have granted legislative consent to the bill, both have indicated they do not plan to change regulation of GE technologies for food and feed. The Scottish Government said it would block this Bill in Scotland. The Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended currently.

During the Queen’s Speech in May 2022, she said the bill aims to “encourage agricultural and scientific innovation in the UK” and “legislation will unlock the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production.”

This bill will apply to plants and vertebrate animals, with the exclusion of humans, that are precision bred. This means they are gene edited and they would be removed from the regulatory system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Government’s Genetic Technology fact sheet published with the bill says that precision breeding is a range of different breeding technologies. These technologies include gene editing which allows DNA to be edited “much more efficiently and precisely than current breeding techniques”.

Reaction from the Industry

This legislation is significant for plant breeders in England as it will enable and support genetic innovation rather than make the guidelines more strict states BSPB (British Society of Plant Breeders).

The statement on their website reads: “While Royal Assent represents a significant milestone, however, it is not the end of the process. The Act itself provides a framework for subsequent implementing rules to be introduced through secondary legislation, a process expected to take a further 18-24 months.

“For plant breeders, the most significant of these will be the Food Standards Agency’s plans for a separate approval process for food and feed marketing.

“The legislation provides more appropriate regulation of precision breeding techniques compared to current GMO legislation which will bring the UK more in line with other countries already using enabling regulations.”

“The UK’s approval of the bill on precision breeding is a welcome development that reflects the country’s commitment to science-based policymaking and innovation,” said Garlich von Essen, secretary general of Euroseeds.

The bill helps the UK be in line with more countries that are enabling genetic editing technology and helps them stay competitive.

“We encourage the European Commission to put forward a proposal that aligns with the approach taken in UK and other countries. This would allow plant breeding to efficiently support the EU Green Deal and its Farm to Fork strategy and to stay competitive,” said von Essen.

Angela Karp, chief executive professor and other scientists at Rothamsted were pleased to hear the bill had passed into law according to a release.

“It will mean recent advances in gene editing technologies will soon be contributing to a more sustainable and productive farming sector,” Karp said. “We’ve already seen the huge benefits genome editing brings to areas such as medicine, it’s now time to apply the same sort of innovation, together with responsible regulation, to our food production.”

“The new law will significantly speed up our ability to test enhanced crops in the field. With the triple threats of climate change, a burgeoning human population, and widespread biodiversity loss hanging over us, the sooner we can get more resilient, more nutritious, nature-friendly crops to market the better,” added Karp.

Genetic editing should increase yields, improve the nutritional content of food and increase resilience to pests and diseases. Less land and less resources being used are also potential benefits of genetic engineering said genetic engineering pioneer, Professor Johnathan Napier.

“The UK’s bioscience sector is now open for business,” Napier said. “Early benefits of gene editing for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those we have now.”

“We can also use GE to remove unwanted genes such as allergens and toxins. It is tremendously exciting that this powerful genetic technology will now be regulated in a much more enabling manner, allowing society to benefit from its potential,” continued Napier.

Precision breeding technologies allow beneficial traits to be passed through plants faster than traditional breeding. Scientists can create foods that are flexible, adaptable and plentiful.

This Act removes precision breeding technologies from the regulator requirements that apply to genetically modified organisms. The Act also allows for a new science-based authorization process for food and feed products that are derived from precision bred plants.

Exciting Opportunity

Professor Peter Eastmond’s research will benefit from the bill. Eastmond is currently exploring how precision breeding can be used to develop grasses with a higher fat content. This can potentially improve animal feed by making it higher in energy while suppressing methane emissions from livestock.

“The opportunities this new genome editing law will bring are genuinely exciting,” said Eastmond. “I strongly believe that genome editing can contribute to making farming net zero. The increase in leaf total lipid content that we’ve achieved in the lab using GE is likely sufficient to significantly enhance productivity and reduce methane emissions from cattle and sheep if replicated in pastures.”

“This is great news,” said Nigel Halford, professor who is running Europe’s first field trial of genome edited wheat. “It will make it much easier for us to test the low acrylamide wheat lines we are developing in the field, which is essential if we are to find out if they could be suitable for wheat breeders to use. The possibility of low acrylamide wheat products being available to consumers in the future has moved one step closer.”

The Bill’s Objectives

The government shared the bill’s objective is to make sure plants, animals and food and feed products developed using precision breeding technologies are “regulated proportionately to risk“. The bill will also “introduce simpler regulatory measures to enable these products to be authorized and brought to market more easily.”

Genetic editing are currently regulated like GMOs, which are different. GMOs are currently defined as an organism with genetic material that has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The European Court of Justice in 2018 said GMO regulations need to include new breeding technologies, including gene editing. The Eu is currently considering the possible loosening of restrictions for plants resulting from GE technology. The government added that the UK leaving the EU means they have the opportunity to adopt a “more science based and proportionate approach to the regulation” of precision bred organisms, adding this could “drive innovation and investment” in the UK.

The government expects to see lower costs with precision-bred crops compared to GMOs. While the reduction in costs mainly benefits plant breeders, the cost benefits will eventually help other parts of the market as well.

There were a few main policy changes in the bill. Issues that were raised in both Houses were regarding animal welfare implications, the regulatory framework and no requirements for labeling GE products.

While the stakeholders reactions were divided, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment said precision bred organisms “posed no greater risk than their traditionally bred or naturally arising counterparts” [PDF].