CROP breeders and farmer leaders have welcomed a UK Government commitment to new legislation that will allow gene editing of food plants and livestock.

Announced as part of the Queen's Speech to the opening of Parliament, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will further Defra's stated intention to loosen the limits on gene editing, while moving it away from the consumer controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Crop science organisation NIAB welcomed the move to take precision breeding techniques, where the resulting plants could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding methods, out of the scope of restrictive GMO rules.

Chief executive Professor Mario Caccamo said: “The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will provide a more straightforward route to market for seeds and crops developed using advanced breeding technologies such as gene editing. It sends a clear signal that Britain is adopting a more pro-innovation approach outside the EU, bringing our rules into line with other countries such as Japan, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, and opening up much greater potential for inward investment and international research collaboration given the UK’s strengths in genetic science.

“Innovation in plant breeding will be the single most important factor in helping global food supplies keep pace with a growing world population, in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources of land, water, energy and biodiversity," said Prof Caccamo. "The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief the precarious balance which exists between global food supply and demand, and the need to explore every option to increase food production sustainably.

“Here at NIAB we are keen to explore the potential for gene editing to transform the performance of leguminous crops such as faba beans and soybeans under UK growing conditions. These are neglected crops in terms of breeding effort, and yet the economic, environmental and climate change opportunities they offer, as Nitrogen-fixing sources of home-grown, plant-based protein for human and livestock consumption, are hugely significant."

NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy agreed: “NFUS believes precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, agriculture and climate change to build on the significant amount of work that farmers and crofters are already undertaking to establish more sustainable and resilient farming systems.

“We firmly believe that precision breeding techniques as a route to crop and livestock improvement could allow us to grow crops which are more resilient to increased pest and disease pressure brought about by our changing climate and more extreme weather events. It would also allow us to use new breeding techniques to breed more productive, efficient animals that need less inputs to protect their welfare. This could be crucial in enabling our farmers to become truly sustainable.”

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Scottish Conservative Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Rachael Hamilton MSP, said: “The devil will be in the detail of this legislation being brought forward by the UK Government. However, Scottish farmers and the industry have been crying out for these sort of technological advancements for a while, so this is an extremely positive step in the right direction.

“SNP Ministers still blur the lines over gene editing and genetically modified organisms. Those delays are only holding back our farmers compared to our counterparts elsewhere in the UK."

However, organic sector watchdog the Soil Association was less impressed with Westminster's direction of travel on crop policy.

“The climate and nature crises are escalating, but the legislative agenda laid out in this Queen’s Speech suggests our government is more interested in stamping out legitimate protests, forcing through environmentally questionable trade deals, and deregulating unpopular gene-editing technologies, than the important task of reforming our broken food system," said SA head of food policy, Rob Percival.

"As recently highlighted by the IPCC, we cannot reverse the climate and nature crises without significant changes to how we eat, which will also improve the nation’s health – government must face up to the scale of the challenge and take bold action now. With many families struggling to put food on the plate, the absence of a bill to make good food available to all is nothing less than negligent."