SCOTGOV'S firm stance against biotechnology in food production could soon become a new post-Brexit battleground between Holyrood and Westminster.

To loud hurrahs from the UK agri-science sector, Boris Johnson's government has just announced a consultation on the future regulation of ‘precision breeding techniques’ for food crops.

That consultation will air the thorny question of whether or not the European Union’s precautionary rules covering genetic science and food are still appropriate for the UK, and open the possibility of the UK extending a warmer welcome to that basket of technologies.

In turn, this process will highlight the question of whether Scotland’s devolved control over agricultural policy can realistically stand firm against a Westminster decision to loosen the restraints on genetic science ¬– put bluntly, if England chooses to legalise biotech crops, can Scotland maintain its ban?

A crucial element of the debate to come will be the difference between genetic modification, and gene editing.

Genetic modification commonly involved taking useful genetic traits from one species and splicing it into another for beneficial effect. Thus a wheat crop could be invented that, thanks to jellyfish genes, would fluoresce when under stress, to make it clearer where chemicals and nutrients should be applied to the field.

Gene editing, by comparison, only moves about genes within the same species. So if one particular cultivar of wheat is better at coping with drought, that hardy gene might be singled out and added to the genes of a high-yielding cultivar, to produce a strong and productive plant, without adding any genes that nature hadn’t already made available within wheat’s genome.

But while scientists are clear on the difference between these two techniques, there is still every chance that the public ¬– and politicians - might just see that word ‘gene’ and reflexively reject the whole notion.

House of Lords debate

Defra Minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble said the case for taking simple gene editing techniques out of the scope of Genetic Modification regulations was ‘very strong’, and reiterated the UK Government’s longstanding objection to the ‘unscientific’ European Court ruling of July 2018 classifying gene editing techniques as GM.

“In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled very clearly that these products must be treated in the same way as GMOs, even if the changes to their genetic material could have been produced by traditional methods, such as crossing varieties of the same species and selecting only the improved individuals,” said Lord Gardiner.

“The Government are committed to taking a more scientific approach to regulation. Many scientific institutes, along with the breeding industry and some EU member states, such as Sweden, share our view that the current rules are unscientific and a solution is needed soon if we are to reap the economic and environmental benefits these technologies have to offer, such as more resilient crop varieties, reduced use of synthetic pesticides and more disease-resistant animals,” he said.

“It is important that the Government address this matter, both by making any necessary legislative changes and by ensuring public confidence and trust. It is important that these issues are heard and addressed transparently. To this end, I place on record that the Government will consult publicly on this issue. Defra is working on the details so that a consultation can be launched in the autumn,” he said.

Lord Krebs, zoologist and former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said: “The amendment we are debating would enable the Government to start a public consultation on harnessing the potential of the brilliant UK plant science research community to make our agriculture greener, more productive and more sustainable.”

Lord Rooker, a former Labour Agriculture Minister and another past chairman of the Food Standards Agency said: “We need better productivity in agriculture and better resistance to disease and climate change. We cannot stand still while our competitors—the United States, Brazil, Australia, Japan—are able to use gene-editing technologies. It does not make sense.”

National Farming Union for Scotland

Speaking for NFU Scotland, president Andrew McCornick said: “Precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, agriculture, climate change and sustainable development and I welcome the commitment from Defra to consult on this in the autumn.

Mr McCornick noted that as this was an area of devolved regulatory competence, the Scottish Government might wish to take a different approach from the rest of the UK. However, he added that the EU itself had commissioned a study into the scientific justification for its 2018 ruling against gene editing ¬- and suggested that ScotGov’s consideration of the matter might factor in the pending results of that study.

“We need to have an informed debate on this subject, not least because any significant differentiation between the regulations relating to gene editing or plant breeding between Scotland and other parts of the UK leads potentially to significant distortion of the UK internal market with the distinct possibility of Scottish growers being placed at a disadvantage resulting from differences in legislation,” said the union president.

“We would ask that the Scottish Government remain open minded to the possibilities which exist for our scientists, plant and livestock breeders, farmers and food producers to use these potentially significant means of crop and livestock improvement.

“The Defra consultation could be matched by a similar undertaking in Scotland to give proper and thorough consideration of the positive benefits of precision breeding techniques in terms of the levels of greater sustainability which could accrue from the adoption of this new technology,” he suggested. “It would allow us to create new varieties of crops which are more resilient to increased pest and disease pressure brought about by our changing climate and more extreme weather events.”

Mr McCornick added that Scotland was proud of its reputation as a world-leading hub for agricultural and biological research, with internationally renowned centres of excellence such as the James Hutton Institute, Roslin Institute and Moredun, and a vibrant university sector.

“It is difficult to conceive how Scotland’s reputation for global scientific leadership could be maintained without equitable access to these widely used research techniques and the potential for innovation that they offer,” he said.

Scottish Government

A Scottish Government spokesperson commented: “The Scottish Government has taken a precautionary approach to GM in order to protect the clean, green status of our £14.3 billion food and drink sector, deciding to opt out of commercial cultivation of GM crops, in tune with two thirds of Europe, and remain in line with our commitment to stay aligned to EU regulations and standards. The European Court of Justice ruling on breeding techniques such as gene editing in 2018 brought some clarity after many years of discussion.

“Scotland has devolved competence for GM policy and we have taken a decision on GM crops that must not be overridden by the UK Government and Brexit.

“We recognise and support the cutting-edge GM science undertaken in research laboratories across the country. Our current policy aligns our vision for Scottish agriculture to be a green, innovative and profitable industry, which is outward looking and resilient.”