Was last week’s proposal the offer of an olive branch or a slyly worded fiddler’s bidding?

View it as you will, but when the UK Government popped the question and requested the hand of its devolved counterpart in Scotland to join in with its shiny new Westminster bill aimed at freeing up regulation surrounding gene editing and other precision breeding techniques, it soon became clear that “I do” wasn’t going to be on the cards.

“The UK Government’s invitation to participate in the Bill comes without them having shared the content with us, and we will therefore need to scrutinise it carefully to consider the implications for Scotland,” a ScotGov spokesperson rather tartly responded.

And they went on to make it plain that that included identifying the potential impacts which the UK Internal Market Act would have on the area, adding:

“The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Internal Market Act and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of devolved powers.”

Now fears have been raised in the past that the Internal Market Act - which was supposedly drawn up to ensure that all parts of the UK continued to operate as one big, happy family – could cause problems on issues like this where there is a wide diversion of policy taken by the different administrations.

In this particular instance it could well mean that while the Scottish Government might stick doggedly to its ban on the growing of crops developed by the sort of precision breeding techniques which the bill would free up in England, at the end of the day the Scottish Government would be unable to control any such produce grown in England crossing the border for sale and use in Scotland.

This would certainly not be a situation likely to result in a lot of happy bunnies in the SNP/Green administration who have in the past made more than clear their opposition more than plain to adopting crops developed by techniques such as gene editing. But it would be a disaster for us.

Obviously the list of benefits which the development of gene edited crops could offer those allowed to grow them has been well flagged up - not least, it has to be said, by Westminster which is really keen to see use of the technology freed up.

These benefits include, but are not limited to, bolstering food production, increasing natural resistance to pests and diseases along with greater resilience to climate change while at the same time allowing a reduction in pesticide usage which would lower costs to farmers and protect the environment.

I must admit, though, that as the move was a long-standing commitment of the post-Brexit Tory party, trying to sell the new bill as if it was being introduced to address the threat to world-wide food security brought about by the war in Ukraine was more than a little disingenuous.

But while it’s bad enough handing our competitors such a huge list of benefits which we could well be denied – having crops which have been grown offering such advantages come into our markets would be likely to massively undercut our own production costs.

On the brighter side, there were some rumours that the message was finally getting through to the Scottish Government that gene edited crops and livestock differed from the old-school transgenic genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (which relied on the expression of genetic material introduced from the DNA of other species).

Whether this would be enough to see the blinkers which blind them to the benefits of the technology removed remains, however, a moot point.

So, on this front it was good to see the James Hutton Institute sticking its head above the parapet a little bit for once. In the past, possibly in the recognition of where their bread is buttered, the institute has been less than keen to pin its colours to the mast in favour of techniques which the majority of scientist support as both ethical and practical.

With a large portion of the JHI’s funding coming from the Scottish Government, previous statements on the issue have been garnished with phrases alluding to social responsibilities and the need to have a democratic remit – an approach which saw them sitting a little less than comfortably on the fence while knowing full well the benefits which such technologies could bring to breeding commercial crops.

This time round though, they possibly delivered the largest dose of common sense in the whole debate, with Lesley Torrance, the JHI’s director of science welcoming the fact that the Bill would focus on the assessment of the properties of any new crop and not the process used to develop it.

For balance though, as the Soil Association pointed out, it is true that gene editing isn’t the only answer to the major problems inherent in the current production systems – and to use it simply as a sticking plaster to prop that up while avoiding addressing the other underlying problems would be wrong.

That said though, there is also no getting away from the fact that it is an extremely important element in the broader tool box for ensuring we can still make a contribution to feeding ourselves in the future.

The UK Government’s proposed legislation was widely welcomed by the vast majority of the scientific community though - and the newly launched ‘Science for Sustainable Agriculture’ (SSA) group immediately applauded the early action by the UK Government to diverge from what it termed the “restrictive EU rules on precision breeding technologies”.

However this new high level lobbying group which is made up of political, scientific and industry leaders was actually set up to urge Governments to do much more to put scientific rigour and evidence at the heart of Britain’s food and farming policies – warning that a failure to do so could risk sleepwalking the nation into its own food crisis.

“With its good soils, temperate climate, highly skilled farming sector, and world-leading science

base”, the groups launch material stated that Britain could utilise science and innovation to increase its food production capacity in the face of heightened food security concerns - while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, protecting biodiversity and conserving precious natural resources.

It said that freed from the restrictive influence of over-precautionary EU regulations, Britain could become an international hub for agri-science excellence and innovation – and there’s no doubt we have plenty of home-grown talent on that front, much of which has been feeling a little stifled in recent years.

On the wider front though, the group also warned of what it made plain it viewed as a ‘policy drift’ towards lower yielding farming systems, and even ‘re-wilding’ of productive farmland – which they claim was underway as the Government ignored the outputs of its own four-year research programme into sustainable intensification.

SSA said its aim was to promote a conversation ‘rooted in scientific evidence, rather than ideology’, - and I can only guess that night include the entire output of ‘Countryfile’ - while exposing, commenting upon and challenging unscientific positions or policy decisions in relation to sustainable agriculture.

Wonder if they might be considering making a trip north of the border?