Does genetic technology have a place in potato growing?

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13 May 2022
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Opinions divided on new UK bill

THE Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill recently outlined in the Queen’s Speech, has been causing ripples amongst those involved in the potato supply chain.

The bill, aimed at promoting “efficient” farming and food production, has met with a welcome response from many working in the science and research sectors, who believe it will ultimately aid growers and boost food production. But others have described it as "a violation of choice" and said it undoes all the positive work done to promote organic production in recent years.

Crop science organisation NIAB welcomed the announcement. NIAB Chief Executive Professor Mario Caccamo said the announcement marked a further important step towards more science-based and proportionate regulation of technologies, giving a boost to prospects for UK plant science and the development of more sustainable farming systems.

“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. 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.

“Access to precision breeding techniques such as CRISPR/Cas-9 will help accelerate the development of higher-yielding crops more resilient to pests and diseases, environmental conditions and climate change effects, food products with improved nutritional qualities, and reduced need for agricultural inputs such as pesticides and synthetic fertilisers," he recently told The Fresh Produce Journal.

Professor Dame Linda Partridge, Vice-President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, the independent scientific academy of the UK, said genetic technologies, including genome editing, can help address the environmental and societal challenges faced by 21st Century agriculture.

She added: “The Royal Society has always advocated that regulation of genetic technologies should be based on the outcome of any genetic changes, rather than the current focus on the technology used to make a genetic change. This approach would ensure that safety, welfare, and environmental issues are all considered, and that legislation is future proofed against new technologies. We have previously called for a public forum to inform decisions on gene editing uses.”

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Professor Peter Bruce, Vice President and Physical Secretary of the Royal Society, also said it was good to see the UK "reaffirming" its commitment to research and developing the technologies required to reach net-zero carbon emissions. 

The NFU believes precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, could protect crops from pests and disease, help deliver net zero and allow farmers to produce more home-grown food, and The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has welcomed the announcement, saying it would help encourage UK research and innovation.

But The Soil Association's senior policy officer - farming, Louise Payton, described the bill as "a high-tech free-for-all" on a commercial scale. "There is clear opposition to this removal of transparency and safety checks. The overwhelming majority (85%) of respondents to the Government’s own consultation are against this move. When facing the combined climate, nature and health crisis, we need action to tackle the causes of disease and poor resilience in the first place. These technologies do not do this well and really are the lowest priority on what is a very long list for the Government, and they must not be used as a risky PR front for inaction," she said.
 
“The move is also a direct violation of choice by the government for farmers and consumers who chose non-GM and in conflict with organic standards which are enshrined in UK law.”

The Scottish Government has long said it wants to maintain a GM-free crop status, but farming union NFU Scotland (NFUS) says growers need access to GE technology to become more sustainable. “New technologies, including the likes of gene editing can help positively address some of the big challenges Scottish agriculture faces, including how we respond to the climate emergency and address biodiversity loss,” said NFUS president Martin Kennedy in a recent interview with The Press and Journal.

Photo: Chad Elliott

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