Breeding of new varieties of crop takes many generations. With the rapid changes in environmental conditions and the withdrawal of key plant protection products, this may not be fast enough to provide food security. A new government report on genetic technologies is recommending changes to regulatory frameworks to support development of new breeding techniques.
Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE comments: “Our knowledge of the genome has increased significantly since the legislation was first passed and it is time to review the regulations. Opening up the discussion and creating a test-case enables different stakeholders to provide their perspectives. This will help provide consensus on the way forward that balances a proportionate view on the risks and benefits and provide an environment that stimulates new thinking.”
New report on Genetic Technologies
There are many emerging genetic technologies that don’t involve the transfer of DNA from one species to another (genetic modification) and that could accelerate the development of new varieties.
However, the current ‘one size fits all’ regulation of genetic technologies does not allow the use of techniques such as gene editing, even when the end product could have arisen in nature or during conventional plant breeding.
The government ran a consultation earlier this year to gain inputs to advise potential changes to the legislation, and it has reported this week (1st September 2021) in the document Regulatory Horizons Council – Report on Genetic Technologies.
The report identifies that genetic technologies developed within a sensible precautionary environment can offer opportunities to transform agri-food systems through nutritionally healthier crop varieties, disease resistance, reduced insecticide and fungicide use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved climate resilience, and contributions to sustainability and biodiversity conservation.
A new regulatory approach for genetic technologies
It makes a number of recommendations, stressing the need to take a more proportionate approach to applications based on the potential risks.
The report says that “A guiding assumption should be that similar products (phenotypically and genetically) arising from different genetic techniques would not be expected to have different risks and so should be subject to similar regulatory scrutiny.”
The report clarifies the underlying principles of good regulation: ensuring safety; balancing precaution about future hazards with ambition to gain future benefits; taking decisions in a timely, proportionate and predictable manner; being adaptable to future innovations; and ensuring improvements in the quality of animal welfare. It concludes that data requirements should be proportionate to the nature and scale of potential risks, should include information on potential benefits, and should not require the collection of data that do not relate to a clearly specified policy.
Gene Editing as a test case
It proposes to use ‘Simple Genome Editing’ as a test case for the new approach as this process generates varieties that could be produced by conventional breeding.
The authors comment: “Given the scale and extent of the potential benefits from all genetic technologies, it is important to ensure that the UK regulatory approach adopted for products of simple genome editing does not create regulatory precedents that would restrict our freedom to act in the near future on the regulation of all genetic technologies.”
Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre, comments: “I welcome publication of this comprehensive report which takes an evidence-based view of regulatory reform that could enable sustainable crop improvement through deployment of modern genetic technologies.”“The Regulatory Horizons Council Report on genetic technologies is extremely timely. With COP26 on the horizon, and with the UK pursuing its own independent trade policy while rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses need to be able to make the most of innovations that stand to benefit the environment, consumers and the economy.
Paul McGrade, Senior Counsel on Brexit and Trade, Lexington Communications comments that the report is extremely timely. “With COP26 on the horizon, and with the UK pursuing its own independent trade policy while rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses need to be able to make the most of innovations that stand to benefit the environment, consumers and the economy.”
He says there is a “case for a science-based, proportionate approach to regulation. Such an approach can unlock investment in the UK and create new opportunities for those who wish to do business here.”
Agri-TechE has an event on 23rd September – Advances in Breeding for Agriculture- New tools for new solutions – at which will be a discussion of the new genetic technologies that are emerging and the implications of the new report for innovation.