The agriculture bill before the House of Lords today offers a chance for plant breeders to make safer, more productive crops that need fewer chemicals. Britain has a long track record of safe and efficient plant breeding but the industry is unable to use the latest techniques because of a rogue decision by the European Union in 2018.
A proposed amendment to the bill would allow the government to consult on whether to use the same definition of a genetically modified organism (GMO) as most of the rest of the world. Doing so would exempt 90 per cent of crops produced by the new and precise method known as genome editing.
Genome editing does none of the things the opponents of GMOs have objected to. It does not introduce foreign genetic material from another species. It does not produce plants that could not have arisen naturally. It does not require large companies.
Here is how it would work in a real example. British sugar-beet farmers are seeing a decline in yields since the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides. Aphids are increasingly infecting the crops with viruses. Other European countries dealt with this problem by making an exception from the neonic ban for their sugar-beet farmers; we did not. However, researchers have found natural varieties of the plant with natural mutations that make sugar beet virus-resistant. They want to induce these precise mutations in varieties that thrive in British conditions.
Traditional plant breeding, by back-crossing and selection, can achieve this but it will take years. Genome editing could achieve it in weeks. Then farmers could grow sugar beet with no introduced DNA and less need for insecticides.
Almost all European plant scientists are united in bafflement and opposition to a highly political judgment by the European Court of Justice in 2018 that departed from the international definition of GMOs to include genome-edited plants, while exempting the far less predictable process of bombarding seeds with gamma rays to induce mutations. It made no sense, scientifically or economically, and went against the advice of its own advocate-general. Britain has a chance to change that definition once it is outside the EU.
If the government permits itself to consult on making this simple change we may see a gold rush of plant breeding projects to this country, generating employment while making crops more competitive, wildlife-friendly, nutrient-rich and with fewer emissions. If we don’t, our farmers will be stuck with more chemicals, less biodiversity and uncompetitive crops.