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The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is government legislation intended to encourage agricultural and scientific innovation by ‘unlocking’ the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production. But this is a complicated and controversial area, around bioethics and animal welfare. So – what is it, and what does it mean?
What do they mean by ‘‘unlocking’ the potential of new technologies?
The Genetic Technology Bill seeks to allow plants, animals, and food and feed products to be developed using precision breeding technologies; but also wants them to be regulated “proportionately to risk”.
Precision breeding technologies are relating to those plants, animals, and food and feed products modified using specified technological methods such as gene editing to replicate changes which can occur naturally.
So, we are allowing genetically modified animals now?
The Bills provisions would remove these specific products from the regulatory system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in favour of a new regime. Precision breeding techniques are currently regulated in the UK under the regime that applies to all genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
What are GMOs?
All living organisms – animals, plants and micro–organisms (such as bacteria or fungi) – carry copies of all their genes in their cells. Those genes hold the information that determines the organism’s particular form and function.
Specific characteristics of an organism may be linked to particular genes or combinations of genes. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), therefore, are organisms whose genes have been artificially altered to modify their characteristics in some way or another.
Genetic modification (GM) is the process of altering the genetic material of an organism by use of a method that does not occur in nature. For example, GM may involve isolating and removing the DNA encoding a single gene from one organism; manipulating it outside the cell (in a laboratory) and reinserting it into the same organism or into the genetic material of another organism.
The aim of GM is often to introduce a new or altered characteristic to the target organism. In agriculture its aims can be vast; from producing plants and animals with genes more resistant to certain diseases; or those that grow faster and produce a more efficient crop etc.
GMOs sound the same as precision breeding technologies? We are still changing the genes?
The government defines precision breeding as a range of breeding technologies, such as gene editing, that can make targeted genetic changes to produce the same beneficial traits that can also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes. GM is the process of altering the genetic material of an organism by use of a method that does not occur in nature.
As such, in the Bills briefing ministers suggest that this description marks a key difference to genetic modification where modern techniques are used to insert functional DNA from an unrelated species into another species.
This has got to be bad, right?
The government suggests the approach in the Genetic Technology Bill will deliver several benefits.
- Cutting the cost
- Cutting the production time
- Delivery of more nutritious and disease-resistant crops
- Helping adaptation to climate change
- Enhancing the health and welfare of animals through greater resistance to diseases
- Reduced use of antibiotics
Ministers argue that advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) suggests that precision-bred organisms “pose no greater risk than their traditionally bred or naturally arising counterparts”
Are people worried?
The bill has had mixed reactions. Whilst farming and industry groups have largely welcomed the measures, campaign groups have raised concerns over the safety and efficacy of such technologies. As well as the potential impacts on animal welfare. It has been criticised that the regulatory regime intended to implement and monitor these technologies as weak and inadequate. This criticism has been supported by Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
The bill has completed its passage through the House of Commons. And the second reading of the bill was in the House of Lords in November 2022.
Will I know if my food is produced via these ‘new technologies’?
Concerns have also been expressed over the lack of labelling requirements for precision-bred food and derived foodstuffs; and the potential implications for the UK’s internal market given that this is a devolved area.
Animal Welfare concerns
Ministers suggest these savings, to reduce cost and time in taking a precision-bred crop to market compared to the current GMO process, would predominantly benefit the plant breeding sector.
Several stakeholders have questioned the inclusion of animals in the bill and the health and welfare concerns they believe it raises. The potential uses of GE reportedly include breeding animals which are more resistant to disease, for example. Yet some stakeholders have warned of the need to ensure animal welfare is not compromised by breeding to select certain traits.
RSPCA’s head of public affairs, David Bowles, said:
“The animal welfare impact of directly altering an animal’s genetic material can be unpredictable and we simply do not know the long-term consequences. There are potentially serious implications, for both farm animals and people who care about them and want to be ethical consumers.”
What is currently happening?
The latest update was in November 2022. The Chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Professor Susan Jebb, wrote to all members of the House of Lords to share an update on the FSA’s approach to creating a regulatory framework for precision bred food and feed products.
This update stated that the FSA were conducting two phases of consumer research, building on their previous research in 2021:
- Phase one, collecting quantitative data, was completed in August 2022.
- Phase two focuses on gathering qualitative data via a citizens’ forum approach.
The FSA stated that they held a series of stakeholder workshops in August and September with industry bodies, consumer interest and civil society organisations in England and Wales, as well as stakeholders in Northern Ireland.
They presented their thinking on the future regulatory framework for precision bred food and feed. And they listened carefully to stakeholder views.
The FSA is considering a range of potential approaches to traceability of these products; after concerns were raised about labelling and transparency. They are also planning a public register which would provide a list of all precision bred organisms authorised for use in food and feed. The FSA is exploring this as an important tool to aid traceability and for enforcement officers, industry and consumers; including how it could provide assurance that the precision bred organism was safe to enter the market for food and feed uses.