British plant breeders welcome Food Standards Agency progress towards streamlined precision-bred food approval process. Soil Association expresses “deep concerns” over labelling

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has welcomed proposals considered by the Food Standards Agency Board yesterday (20 September) for a streamlined approach to the regulation of precision-bred food and feed products under the Genetic Technology Precision Breeding Act 2023.

BSPB said the approach recommended by the FSA follows the science and could unlock significant investment and economic activity in the use of precision breeding techniques. By accelerating the development of improved crop varieties, more precise breeding technologies such as CRISPR/Cas gene editing will help plant breeders keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change.

Mirroring the regulatory process already adopted in Canada, and the approach recently proposed in the EU, the FSA is recommending a move away from the lengthy regulated products process currently applied to GMOs, novel foods and irradiated foods, opting instead for a more streamlined process for Precision Bred Organisms (PBOs), more proportionate the scientific evidence of risk.

This is in line with expert scientific advice from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) that there is “no evidence that PBOs are intrinsically more hazardous than traditionally bred organisms (TBOs)” and is consistent with the definition set out in the Precision Breeding Act that confirmed PBOs contain genetic changes which could have occurred in nature or through conventional breeding.

Commenting on the FSA recommendations yesterday, BSPB chairman Robin Wood said: “The plans unveiled at today’s board meeting confirm a more proportionate, science-based approach to approving precision bred products for marketing as food and feed.

“Until very recently, there were serious concerns that the FSA was planning to require separate risk assessment, expert committee scrutiny, public consulation, approval by both Houses of Parliament and Secretary of State sign-off for each and every precision bred product.

“This more streamlined approach is likely to encourage interest and investment from plant breeding buainesses of all sizes, across a wide range of crops and traits, which is fantastic news.”

However, UK organic farming accreditation body the Soil Association told FPJ that, while it welcomed the FSA’s recognition of the importance of engaging with the organic sector on the regulation of PBOs, it had ”deep concerns” regarding the FSA’s approach to the identification, traceability and labelling of PBOs.

Soil Association policy officer Lucia Monje-Jelfs said: “Without sufficient labelling and traceability requirements, they will not be able to meet their obligations to protect public safety and guard against food fraud. It will also be a failure to address consumers genuine concerns and their wish to maintain freedom of choice.

“A recent survey found that 70 per cent of the public would expect that genetically engineered foods are clearly labelled. In the interest of consumer confidence we strongly urge the FSA to reconsider their stance on the labelling of PBOs.

“While Defra has confirmed that there are no plans to require labelling of PBOs, the FSA’s solution discussed yesterday was that an ‘enhanced public register’ would provide the public with enough details on emerging PBOs. We believe that this is insufficient and poses a serious threat to consumer confidence. It begs the question of how consumers can be expected to connect the food that they buy to that register.”