Milestone act opens up myriad new opportunities in precision breeding

New opportunities in plant breeding have opened up

New opportunities in plant breeding have opened up

Gene editing has become a commercial reality in England after the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act passed into law.

The act sets into motion changes to allow farmers to grow crops that are drought and disease resistant, reduce use of fertilisers and pesticides, and help breed animals that are protected from catching harmful diseases.

Precision breeding involves using technologies such as gene editing to adapt the genetic code of organisms, creating beneficial traits in plants that through traditional breeding would take decades to achieve.  

The government said the act would enable scientists “to safely create foods that are more flexible, adaptable and plentiful for years to come”, adding that it will reinforce food security in the face of climate change and ensure England becomes “a world-leader in agri-food innovation”.

Under the provisions of the act, a new science-based and streamlined regulatory system will be introduced to facilitate greater research and innovation in precision breeding, with stricter regulations remaining in place for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Wide-ranging powers

The act has the powers to:

  • Remove plants and animals produced through precision breeding technologies from regulatory requirements applicable in England to the environmental release and marketing of GMOs;
  • Introduce two notification systems: one for precision-bred organisms used for research purposes and the other for marketing purposes. The information collected will be published on a public register on;
  • Establish a proportionate regulatory system for precision-bred animals to ensure animal welfare is safeguarded. Changes to the regulations for animals will not be introduced until this system is in place;
  • Establish a new science-based authorisation process for food and feed products derived from using precision-bred plants and animals.

Parts of the new framework will be introduced in phases. That means work will commence to make sure the commercial cultivation of precision-bred plants, or the sale of precision-bred food, is possible in the near future.

‘Fantastic news for consumers and farmers’

Food minister Mark Spencer said: ”The Genetic Technology Act is fantastic news for British consumers and farmers. Precision breeding technologies are the future of food production not just at home, but around the world, and this act will put our nation at the forefront of this revolution.

“Some 40 per cent of crops globally are lost every year to floods, pests and other external events, and this new law will unlock our agri-biotech industry to support resilient food production for decades to come.

Defra’s chief scientific adviser Gideon Henderson added: ”This is an important time for agricultural science. The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes.

“The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act covers precision-bred plants and animals developed through techniques such as gene editing. This is different to genetic modification, which produces crops containing genetic changes that could not have occurred through traditional breeding or occur naturally.

“The act ensures that before we see any changes to market, the Food Standards Agency will consult on new food and feed legislation and produce a new proportionate risk assessment for precision-bred food and feed. England joins countries such as Argentina, the US, Australia and Japan that have already enacted similar legislation, driving innovation on a global scale and helping fight the greatest challenges facing the world.

”While there is great potential for increasing innovation, the government recognises that there is a need to safeguard animal welfare in the new regulatory framework. That is why we are taking a step-by-step approach, enabling use of precision breeding technologies with plants first followed by animals later.”

Industry response

The NFU hailed the arrival of the new act, which vice president David Exwood said the union had advocated for more than two decades. ”I am delighted that, after working closely with Defra, the Food Standards Agency, parliamentarians, and industry partners to ensure the bill’s smooth progress, it has passed its final hurdle,” he added.

“Biotechnology is by no means a silver bullet, but having access to more targeted precision breeding tools for our crops and livestock could really help bolster climate-friendly food production and support biodiversity here in Britain.

“It’s important to note that the passage of the bill is only the first step. As it is implemented through further legislation, regulations must be fit for purpose if it is to provide a meaningful boost to our food resilience and food security.”