A NEW Westminster law, the Precision Breeding Act, sets in motion changes that will allow farmers in England to grow genetically modified (GM) food for consumption by people and livestock.

According to the Department for Environment, Food, and Agriculture (Defra), this will lead to “crops which will be drought and disease resistant, reduce use of fertilisers and pesticides, and help breed animals that are protected from catching harmful diseases”.

Defra says: “Precision breeding involves using technologies such as gene editing to adapt the genetic code of organisms – creating beneficial traits in plants that through traditional breeding would take decades to achieve. This enables scientists to safely create foods that are more flexible, adaptable and plentiful for years to come.”

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While the phrase Precision-Bred Organism (PBO) now is widely used in the sector, the Soil Association points out that “precision breeding is a marketing term, not a scientific discipline”. An internationally recognised description is New Genomic Techniques (NGT), which refers to genomic technology developed since 2001.

Agriculture in Scotland is a devolved matter; Scotland’s Parliament makes our farming and environmental legislation. While Scotland still bans GM products in our food and drink, the UK Internal Market Act means there is nothing to stop precision-bred English foods and animal feeds from making their way into our food chain – and the English law puts no labelling requirements on precision-bred products.

This raises serious problems in several areas. If precision-bred food is not labelled, it can’t be avoided. Consumer protection, consumer choice and consumer confidence in the food we eat is of significant importance, both at home and in our important export markets. Organic farmers and producers of organic food and drink cannot use GMOs and keep their credentials, so clear labelling is a vital requirement for the future of Scotland’s organic sector.

In an article published last year, Dr Mariela de Amstalden, assistant professor of intellectual property and innovation law at Birmingham University, said: “Potential for global trade-distorting effects appear unmitigated, as unlabelled gene-edited foods would not, in principle, be granted market access in WTO [World Trade Organisation] member states with more stringent labelling requirements for such foods.”

She adds: “On the matter of free movement of goods within the UK, there would be no barriers impeding the transit of gene-edited products from England into Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – where precision breeding techniques for agriculture are still banned.

“Questions have been raised about the lack of consultation with devolved governments while preparing the bill, potentially jeopardising the legitimacy of the new products. Another layer of complexity is added by the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework, de facto requiring foodstuffs to comply with both EU and UK rules.”

It would not be an understatement to say the devolved nations have been treated with a dismissiveness which could be interpreted as rank contempt by the UK Government as the English legislation made its way through the Westminster Parliament.

(Image: Andrew Milligan)

In July 2022, MSP Mairi McAllan (above), then minister for agriculture and land reform, wrote expressing her “disappointment at the timing of your letter regarding the bill, with your invitation for Scotland to join in the legislation coming the day before the bill was introduced in the UK Parliament.

“Despite repeated earlier requests from the Scottish Government and other Devolved Administrations, a draft of the bill was provided only on the afternoon before it was introduced, after your letter inviting us to participate in the bill had already been shared with the media. This is unacceptable.”

The lengthy letter – a masterclass in diplomatic excoriation – goes on: “I am therefore extremely concerned that the UK Government’s preferred option, as set out in the bill documentation, will not require labelling of precision-bred products.

“Not only does this obstruct the enforcement of our devolved powers to regulate produce covered by the GM crops, animals and food and feed regimes in Scotland, I am firmly of the view that the public have a right to know what they are consuming.

"Furthermore, there are serious considerations around trade, including with our biggest trading partner, the European Union. In Scotland, we will take careful note of the European Commission’s consideration of the issues involved, including the public consultation being conducted by the Commission.”

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In July last year, the European Commission published proposals for new regulations covering NGT in the EU market. Plants and derived food and feed that could have also occurred naturally or by conventional breeding will be classified as “Category 1”.

These will be subject to strict verification procedures and will be treated like conventional produce, exempt from the requirements in the GMO legislation. While there will be a requirement for the labelling of seeds, no consumer labelling for food and feed has been proposed. “Category 2” will cover all other NGT plants and derived food and feed, and the current requirements of the GMO legislation will apply. There will be a requirement for Category 2 NGT products to be labelled as GMOs.

A number of Scottish organisations are putting the case for Scotland to follow England and adopt similar legislation, saying precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, agriculture, climate change and sustainable development.

The internationally respected James Hutton Institute (JHI), is part of a UK-wide research project, called TuberGene, aimed at creating a potato which cooks more quickly. JHI says gene editing will cut the time it will take to develop this characteristic and so make the potato available commercially much sooner than would be possible using traditional methods.

Generally, the use of the use of NGT or precision-bred organisms in crops or cultivation falls under the remit of the Scottish Government. When a product enters the food chain, regulatory responsibility transfers to Food Standards Scotland (FSS).

In 2022, FSS commissioned consumer research to understand the public’s views around the issue of precision breeding. Most people were open to NGTs because they are something which could occur naturally. A clear majority expected foods containing NGTs would be clearly labelled. FSS is set to work with the Scottish Government this summer on proposals which take into account the developing science and the approaches being taken by the UK Government and the EU.

The Soil Association points to a poll from August 2023 in which 64% of respondents said they would expect genetically engineered crops to be thoroughly checked before being licensed for general use, and 70% said they would expect to see foods containing PBOs clearly labelled.

The association raises serious concerns about the inclusion of animals in the English Act and is calling for a moratorium on genetic modifications in livestock, citing animal welfare concerns.

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In the run-up to the General Election, the campaign group Beyond GM is urging people to write to their prospective parliamentary candidates, urging them to commit to “maintain and strengthen” opposition to Westminster’s Genetic Technology Act.

We have seen the lengths the UK Government is prepared to go to in over-riding the democratic mandate of Scotland’s Parliament. It is vital our new MPs are prepared to stand up for Scotland’s crucial agricultural, food and drink sectors, to protect the right for our MSPs to make laws in Holyrood which work in the interests of Scottish businesses and for Scotland’s people.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign.