The undertaking given by Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf that any changes to Scotland’s current policy on gene editing and other precision breeding techniques would be led by scientific advice, which was given when he spoke at the union’s AGM a couple of weeks ago, was probably widely welcomed by the audience.

But, like much of the rest of his presentation, while the First Minister’s speech made all the right appreciative noises – such as stating that his administration recognised the differences between new techniques such as gene editing and older GMO technologies – it was a bit short on detail.

Coming in the same week as Europe took a step closer towards granting their farmers access to the benefits of what they are terming new genomic techniques (NGTs), hopes might have been raised that Scotland could follow nimbly in these footsteps – and perhaps we could even catch up with our cousins south of the Border in time to stop them stealing a march on us as far as growing new varieties benefitting from the new cutting-edge science.

However, while on this occasion the privilege of the press did not gain us a ‘huddle’ with the First Minister which would have allowed us to seek clarification on this – and many other issues – we did have the benefit of one with Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon following the address to the conference.

The coo’s tail

Sadly, though, after pressing the issue of the use of these new breeding techniques, I was left with the impression that Scotland’s farmers are more likely to be left at the coo’s tail on this front than they are to be leading the field.

For it was made clear to me that a ‘wait and see’ policy was on the cards before any change would even be considered, an approach which I was told was in line with the SNP’s stated ambition to remain ‘broadly in line with EU regulations where they best served Scotland’s needs’.

The Cabinet Secretary said that a national consultation involving wider society would be conducted before any changes were made to the current policy – which, in contrast to the attitude adopted in England, continues to see stringent GMO regulations applied on research projects alongside a ban on commercial growing of such crops – but made it plain that this was not yet on the cards: “We’re not at the stage of holding a consultation yet – again, we want to monitor what’s happening in the EU in relation to this as well before determining how we will move forward.

“We don’t want to pre-empt any decision as this could create trade barriers with Europe,” she said, adding that this was why the Scottish Government had not taken up the offer to join the UK Government’s Precision Breeding Bill which had already moved towards a lighter regulatory regime for the commercial harnessing of gene-editing techniques when they’d been asked to a couple of years ago.

“We’re not going to rush into a decision in the same way as the UK Government did,” she declared.

On the back foot

Ms Gougeon admitted that a difference in the regulatory regime between Scotland and England could cause its own problems, and she acknowledged that this had, in itself, created a challenge to the Internal Marketing Act. She decried this as representing a direct threat to Scotland’s devolved powers.

So, despite what might have sounded like encouraging noises, it looks like we’re going to be on the back foot until Europe has decided and only leave the changing rooms to take up our place on the starting block some considerable time after the starting gun has been fired.

So, what did the European Parliament actually do? It announced that MEPs had voted to move towards relaxing the regulations surrounding new genomic techniques by creating two new categories for crops and animals bred using the technology.

And the move was welcomed by farming bodies in the trading block as an important step towards making systems more sustainable and resilient by developing improved plant varieties that are climate resilient, pest resistant, give higher yields, or require fewer fertilisers and pesticides.

Under the changes proposed by the European Parliament, NGT plants which could have been bred by traditional techniques (NGT 1 plants) would be exempted from the control requirements of the GMO legislation, whereas other NGT plants (NGT 2 plants) would still have to follow these stricter requirements. MEPs also voted to maintain mandatory labelling of products from both NGT 1 and NGT 2 plants.


And in a move designed to incentivise uptake of new crops, MEPs agreed to accelerate the risk assessment procedure for NGT plants but underlined that the so-called precautionary principle had to be respected.

They also called for a full ban on patents for all NGT plants, plant material, parts thereof, genetic information and process features they contain, to avoid legal uncertainties and the threat of increased costs and new dependencies for farmers and breeders.

So some definite indication that there has been a bit of a change of mindset among the EU’s mandarins – one which, with a European Parliament election on the cards this year, is more than a little likely to have been taken with an eye to playing to the electorate.

For there are sure signs here that the combination of the recent cost-of-living crisis and a growing awareness of the environmental, climate change and social benefits which breeding new, more resilient crops can offer have all led to a bit of a change in the public’s minds as well.

And this has, in all probability, been backed up by the fact that gene-edited crops and even the older genetically modified crops have so far withstood the test of time – and managed to avoid creating the ‘frankenfood’ and environmental horrors which were being predicted several decades ago, despite being widely grown around the world. So it’s disappointing to think that we might be among the last to benefit from the adoption of these new techniques.

Cutting-edge science

Especially since this apparent dithering stands in such stark contrast to the big changes and the faith in cutting-edge science which are currently being expressed at one of the country’s leading crop research centres, the James Hutton Institute’s centre at Invergowrie.

For, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the growers, merchants, maltsters and others involved all the way across the barley supply chain got a chance to see some of the new facilities being created at the International Barley Hub (IBH) which is currently under construction at the site – and to hear from some of the researchers already working at the Hutton about the huge range of scientific disciplines which will be needed to ensure that the crop is fit for the future.

With the IBH, together with the Advanced Plant Growth Centre, also being created at the institute sharing £62 million from the Tay Cities Deal Partnership, the new facilities represent a major investment in the sort of science which will be needed to give the barley crop the scientific support it deserves – and needs – in this country and across the globe.

But while it was made plain that the institute wouldn’t be taking up the role of a lobbying organisation to twist the government’s (on whichever side of the Border) arm, it was clear that it would be providing the evidence-based research to advise those in authority – and to help them make a considered decision.

Let’s just hope that the scientific advice provided falls on open ears – and open minds.