Will the Scottish Government's reluctance on gene-edited crops harm the agriculture sector?
It is no secret that farmers choose favourable traits in their crops for breeding more resilient and all-round better produce. In fact, it is a practice that has taken place for thousands of years. In large part, crops depend on human interventions for their resilience to the environment they are grown in.
But in 2012, crop breeding had a seismic breakthrough. The introduction of CRISPR-Cas, a robust and powerful biotechnological tool that targets an individual DNA and RNA sequence in the genome, was discovered. It allows biologists to delete, repeat or completely replace the genes of any organism. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas have given farmers the potential to improve crops tolerance to the effects of climate change, drought, diseases, and increase yields.
The idea of scientists working on the improvement of food growth at a cellular level in laboratories had been theorised in scientific literature previously and was written about in fiction novels for decades before the biological discovery was made ten years ago.
But unlike a lot of the fiction of the time that surmised incredible short-term benefits before bringing some imagined doomsday scenario, the technology is completely safe, according to Professor Anne Glover, Scotland’s former chief scientific adviser. She points to the conclusions of the peer-reviewed research and that there is no foreign DNA introduced in the process. “It is really very different from what we understand as conventional genetic engineering, you are only editing it to stop or add a particular function.”
China and Kenya have made moves this year to allow gene-edited crops in a push for food security, while the UK Government is passing its Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill through parliament. However, the Scottish Government has been reluctant to create any similar legislation to allow gene-editing of crops for farmers north of the border to benefit from the science.
A Scottish Government spokesperson told Holyrood that this was to ensure that Scotland operated to the highest environmental standards and that the strengths of Scottish agriculture and food production were protected.
“We are aware of the current debate around new genomic techniques and how these relate to existing GM legislation, and we note in particular the consideration of this at EU level. The Scottish Government’s policy is to stay aligned, where practicable, with the EU, and we are closely monitoring the EU’s position on this issue.
“The Scottish Government has a number of concerns about the UK Government’s Precision Breeding Bill and how this will impact devolved matters. The regulation of genetic modification is a devolved area of responsibility and the views of stakeholders in Scotland must be central to how those regulations apply to new genetic technologies such as gene editing,” the spokesperson added.
However, the government’s own former chief scientist does not think introducing gene-edited crops would lower environmental standards. Professor Glover, who was also chief acientific adviser to the President of the European Commission, told Holyrood: “I understood the Scottish Government want to see that agriculture is sustainable, and that we reduce as much as possible the impact on the environment of the use of chemicals and fossil fuel-based fertilisers. The more you can do that the better, and gene-editing offers the possibility to do that.”
Contrary to the government’s stance, she sees the introduction of gene-editing “as increasing environmental standards” by eliminating current practices that harm the environment.
Climate change is being already felt by Scottish farmers. This year, field scale vegetables were badly affected by the lack of rain. This led to SEPA suspending water abstraction licenses for the first time in Scotland. Policy manager at the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS), David Michie said: “We have been impacted in terms of vegetables. Farmers are just getting their heads around the kind of things that they need to put in place to mitigate this.
“New varieties of gene-edited crops are not going to solve this issue on its own, there need to be sweeping measures around water management infrastructure, a landscape scale approach to land management to retain water with trees and peatland.”
The Scottish Government’s position is very clear: they will remain as closely aligned to the EU on this matter and will move to bring in legislation if and when the EU does. Michie is concerned “that it is a political decision rather than a scientific decision”.
Glover agrees that it was a political decision, offering her perspective on the decision: “It is important in my mind to accept that it is valid for the Scottish Government to say they do not wish to have gene-editing because they are aligning with EU regulations. As part of the long game, they wish to become members of the EU again, and the easiest way to facilitate that is to keep all the regulations that are in their power consistent in the EU.”
However, Michie believes that Scotland’s lack of appetite to introduce legislation allowing gene-editing for breeding purposes would harm farmers in the long term. He said: “Realistically we need to get going now. Gene-editing is a transformative technology that speeds up plant breeding, and plant breeding takes a long time, depending on what you are trying to do.
“With the different challenges that we are facing and the different breeding objectives that scientists have got, it is important to get this in now, in order to shorten that time frame.
“Another massive potential disadvantage will be buying feed and selling things from south of the border. If plant breeders within the UK use the technology, and they don’t continue with the old technology, you could have a situation where the old varieties are only bred using gene-editing technology. The other varieties just won’t be available to farmers. There could be a two-track system for breeding crops.”
The UK Government believes that gene-editing could “revolutionise farming”. A spokesperson points to the work being done in Scotland: “Some of the most important and exciting research here comes from Scotland and world centres of excellence like the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and the Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University.”
And there is concern that holding off on gene-editing legislation could lead to the Scottish institutes losing out to larger global companies. Michie says: “We have world-leading research and capability on gene-editing with the James Hutton Institute. Big companies like Bayer or Monsanto sell the seed and the chemicals to grow it. An institute like the James Hutton Institute does not have that business model. It is just about breeding the best varieties that are available to Scotland, and the wider world, I think that would be a huge loss if they lose out on this.”
Glover adds: “I think it offers a tremendous opportunity not just in the developed world, but particularly in the developing world, where people do use agrochemicals in the production of crops, to prevent pests and disease because they cannot afford the protective clothing that we use in developed economies.
“With gene-editing technology they could safely grow crops, with higher yields and potentially better nutritional value with less input of chemicals, and possibly irrigation.
“If I were still chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission, I would be working as hard as possible to try to make the evidence as widely available as possible, to try and highlight the advantages, particularly around climate change issues and safety of agriculture, for government to consider gene-editing as a possibility.”