Power Plants: Agri-tech Bill can boost yields and climate resilience, ministers predict

The government has today promised that the UK is on the cusp of developing “more resistant, more nutritious, and more productive crops” with the passing of legislation to cut red tape and support the development of innovative agri-tech.

Ministers said they hoped the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will remove barriers to research into new gene editing technology, which had been “held back by the EU’s rules around gene editing”.

Ministers at the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) believe existing EU laws are too focused on legal interpretation rather than science, hindering the development and marketing of precision bred plants and animals.

“Outside the EU we are free to follow the science,” said Environment Secretary, George Eustice. “These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilisers. The UK has some incredible academic centers of excellence and they are poised to lead the way.”

As well as reducing costs to farmers and increasing disease resistance in plants and animals, the government said the changes would boost climate change resilience. With water scarcity likely to worsen in the coming decades, it is essential that plant breeding technology is able to keep pace with the challenge, officials added.

“This legislation recognises the need to update our regulatory frameworks to keep pace with new scientific technologies,” said Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency. “Our regulatory system needs to be fit for purpose to unlock the benefits of new genetic technologies for consumers while providing confidence that our food standards will be maintained.”

Precision breeding can create safer food by removing allergens and preventing the formation of harmful compounds in food. Globally, between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of all crops grown are lost to pests and diseases. However, Defra was keen to draw a clear distinction between such innovations and the more controversial field of genetically modified or ‘GM’ crops.

“Substantial environmental, health and food security benefits can come from use of genetic technologies to precisely mimic breeding and improve our crops,” said Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Gideon Henderson. “The UK is home to some of the world’s leading research institutions in this area and these reforms will enable their scientists to use their expertise to make farming more resilient and our food healthier and more sustainable.

“This is different to genetic modification (GM) techniques, where genes from one species are introduced to another.”

The government said it would now take a ‘step-by-step approach’ by creating legislation for plants first. No changes will be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare, it added.

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