By Brian Henderson

Hopes that Scottish growers might be able to benefit from developments in modern bio-technology and breeding techniques post-Brexit were torpedoed last week when the Scottish Government revealed that it was intent on sticking to EU regulations on technologies such as gene editing.

It has now become clear that Scottish farmers are unlikely to benefit from any relaxation in the regulations surrounding the use of new cutting-edge breeding techniques which had been proposed at Westminster by dint of making a simple amendment to the UK Agriculture Bill.

A week past a cross-party group of MPs called for the amendment which would allow the UK to adopt a more flexible approach to precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, after Brexit.

Currently, the EU places techniques such as CRISPR – which manipulates the genetic material already present in an plant and doesn’t add foreign DNA and which many scientists believe simply speed up outcomes which could be achieved by normal breeding – under the same regulatory burden as those placed on transgenic genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture – which lists junior Defra minister, Rebecca Pow; Scottish secretary, Alister Jack; and chancellor Rishi Sunik, amongst its members – proposed excluding such techniques from the arduous restrictions imposed on GMOs by adopting the internationally recognised Cartagena Protocol approach, which is accepted by many other countries, including the US, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Japan.

The group claimed such a move would give UK plant breeders access to technologies which would deliver increased agricultural productivity, better sustainability, greater resilience to pests and diseases, improve nutritional values and make crops less vulnerable to climate change.

To go back a step or two, though, most scientists hold that gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 can deliver radical improvements in the speed and precision of crop and livestock breeding by manipulating genetic material already carried by crops and livestock. And, as no foreign genetic material is introduced, they argue that this simply allows results possible by the use of normal breeding techniques to be achieved at a much faster rate.

However, in 2018, the EU’s Court of Justice ruled that the use of these techniques should fall under the same strict regulatory regime as was applied to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – putting the EU at odds with how these techniques were regulated elsewhere in the world.

The ruling was widely criticised by scientists, farmers, plant breeders and politicians, many of whom argued such an approach was an unwarranted block to the sort of innovation required to help the industry cope with the demands of climate change, food security and sustainable development issues.

But responding angrily to the possibility of Westminster making such a change in the UK Agriculture Bill, the Scottish Government’s rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, last week made clear her opposition to any moves to permit the use of such technology in the UK – and to any prospect of Scottish farmers growing varieties bred using such techniques.

“Any such amendment to the UK Government’s agriculture bill would not apply to Scotland and we would resist any attempt to extend its application, given this is a devolved policy matter,” said the minister, who added: “This development confirms our worst fears about Brexit and how quickly it may compromise environmental and food standards.”

Ms Gougeon said that the administration had long been opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in the open environment in order to protect the ‘clean, green’ status of Scotland’s £14.8bn food and drink sector, adding that her government’s commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards would mean maintaining Scotland’s GM crop free status.

At an industry level, the differing political opinions should be of concern to us – on two counts.

One is the possibility that growers in Scotland could be denied access to techniques, verified safe by scientists, which could improve productivity while reducing the use of crop inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers – although it has to be conceded that ‘public buy-in; would also be required.

The other major concern is the possibility of different regulatory regimes operating in Scotland and England – and when I put the issue to NFU Scotland, union president, Andrew McCornick, he stressed the need for the UK Agriculture Bill to provide a commonly agreed regulatory framework which applied across the UK.

“As we look to move this debate forward, it is important that all regulations relating to agricultural production in the UK, including gene editing, plant protection products, animal health and welfare, etc., must be ‘commonly agreed’ by all devolved administrations and governed likewise.”

The English NFU had thrown its weight thoroughly behind the proposals to amend the Bill, with vice-president Tom Bradshaw stating that the amendment was an opportunity for the UK farming industry, claiming that it was one that ‘simply cannot be missed’.

He said the cost of failing to grasp the opportunity would be to deny the UK the use of a set of breeding tools which had already been shown to offer solutions to intractable problems, highlighting the technology’s ability to address such issues as the need to protect plants and animals from disease and to use fewer resources while maintaining or increasing quality and yield.

Professor Colin Campbell, chief executive of Scotland’s leading plant research establishment, the James Hutton Institute, said that the proposed adoption of the Cartagena Protocol on gene editing was ‘sound and logical’ from a scientific perspective: “We would support an approach that risk assessed new crop varieties and any modifications based on the resultant plant properties and not on the method used to produce them.”

He said that adopting such protocols would put the different ways of crop breeding on a more equal footing, protect the environment and help the development of much needed improvements in crops using all the scientific understanding available.

“As a scientific organisation that studies the benefits and risks of gene modification and also the social science perspectives, we are aware it is never always just about the technology but also about people’s attitudes and beliefs.

“However, adopting a scientifically sound protocol would help everyone to evaluate the risks and benefits properly,” said Professor Campbell.

So, while the Scottish Government’s opposition to big multi-national companies using GMO technology to introduce foreign DNA into crops in an attempt to help them sell more of their herbicides and pesticides (and in doing so conjuring up the Frankenfood headline) – as was the case in the 1990s – might have been laudable, this shouldn’t blind us from seeing how techniques, approaches and aims have moved on since then.

The task of facing up to the demands of producing sufficient food in an environmentally sustainable manner against stiff competition from other countries will be difficult enough without trying to do so with one hand tied behind our backs.