Soya beans could be grown in the UK while the job of dehorning cattle could be a thing of the past if a parliamentary bill allowing gene editing in England passes into law.
On Tuesday 28 June, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill progressed to its committee stage, with industry leaders and scientists warning of the consequences to UK agriculture if farmers are denied access to this technology.
Speaking at an evidence session of the House of Commons public bill committee set up to examine the proposed legislation, NFU vice-president David Exwood said it was clear that the EU was moving forward on gene editing and precision breeding and, as a consequence, there would be no impact on trade if this technology was adopted in the UK.
“The rest of the world is moving and we need to move with them,” he said.
Mr Exwood told MPs of the potential gains gene editing offered, from breeding sugar beet varieties resistant to virus yellows that need fewer synthetic pesticides, to growing crops that are currently not possible due to the UK climate, including soya beans.
The bill also covers gene editing in animals.
“I have dehorned thousands of cattle in my farming career,” said Mr Exwood. “The ability to breed out horns in cattle is a clear gain for people and for livestock, and would be good for everybody.”
He insisted that it was wrong to assume that gene editing would lead to an intensification of production.
If the bill becomes law, it would apply only to researchers and farmers in England, with support for gene editing currently not forthcoming from devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland.
Helen Ferrier, the NFU’s chief science adviser, voiced her concern that the work of scientists in these countries would not go “beyond the lab”.
“It would be a shame if this was derailed for political reasons when the issues are not political,” she said.
Defra’s chief scientific advisor, Prof Gideon Henderson, said he had been consulting widely with the scientific community since the very early stages of the bill.
“I am personally content that the bill is fit for purpose and will ensure continued safety of the environment and of food,” he told the committee.
But concerns have been raised by organisations including the RSPCA, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, which want major revisions to the bill.
In a joint “civil society” statement, they suggest that “in its haste to deregulate, the government has not adequately considered the implications”, referencing farming, food, animal welfare, the environment and trade.
The Government Regulatory Policy Committee also insists that the impact assessment, setting out the business case for deregulation, is “not fit for purpose”, having failed to consider the full range of impacts, such as on small businesses, the environment and traceability.