The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has welcomed the announcement in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech that the UK government will bring forward a new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, set to exempt improved crop varieties from restrictive GMO rules where the DNA changes involved could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding methods.

BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke said:

“This announcement is the most significant policy development in UK plant breeding for more than 20 years.

“We strongly welcome the government’s plan to make controls on these breeding technologies more proportionate and science-based, aligning our rules with other countries such as Australia, Japan, Argentina and Canada.

“Changing the way new agricultural breeding technologies are regulated, by taking precision breeding out of the scope of GMO rules, will encourage research and innovation to develop healthier, more nutritious food, and to make farming systems more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change.

“Techniques such as gene editing involve making desired changes to a plant which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision.

“Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding – for example to improve its nutritional quality or resistance to disease – can take up to 15 years, but gene editing can help reduce that timescale significantly.

“Without the contribution of plant breeding over the past 20 years, farmers would have produced 20% less food in this country, which means an extra 1.8 million hectares of land would have been needed to supply our food needs.

“That expansion would have impacted vulnerable ecosystems, and generated an extra 300 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions,” she added.

“Current regulations on conventional plant breeding and seeds are proven over many years to support safer and more sustainable food production.

“This regulatory system can also embrace new crop varieties produced using precision breeding techniques, which replicate what plant breeders are already doing, but in a much quicker and more targeted way.”

“The introduction of a Precision Breeding Bill sends a clear signal that the UK is set on a more pro-innovation trajectory outside the EU.

“It will certainly boost prospects for plant breeding companies large and small, as well as scientists in the public sector, to continue improving our food crops for the benefit of society and the environment.”