Scientists and farmers have warned of the “barrier to innovation” facing British farming following the European Court of Justice’s ruling on gene editing, but also highlighted the opportunity Brexit represents for the UK to set its own course.
In July, the Court of Justice ruled that new breeding techniques (NBTs) will be subject to the same regulations, effectively signalling that the EU is an unfavourable location to undertake plant genetics research, development and commercialisation of new crop innovations.
Leading researchers representing more than 75 European plant and life sciences research centres, including those from the UK's John Innes Centre, are said to be “deeply concerned” about the recent ruling.
Paul Temple, a mixed farmer and past Vice President for the NFU, expressed disappointment that “Europe has effectively closed its door” to innovation by virtue of its regulatory approach to gene editing and GM crops.
He warned that the UK is facing an unprecedented challenge thanks to rising temperatures, leaving the it vulnerable to fluctuating food prices,
But he suggested Brexit could be an opportunity for the UK to diverge from EU regulation on plant science.
Mr Temple said: “While we don’t have a big enough commercial market alone for these crops, the mere fact that the UK can now do the trials and encourage the technology, put it in the fields and demonstrate it can be workable and manageable to the rest of the EU, will be a real positive for the UK post-Brexit.
“It would potentially allow those that want to have the choice in Europe to say ‘look this is what the UK has done, this is how it is managed, it’s perfectly possible.”
His concerns were echoed by other interviewees, including Dr Zoe Davies, Chief Executive of the Pig Association, who observed that regulatory decisions in Europe are currently “politically driven, not evidence-based at all”.
But she is optimistic about what Brexit can potentially bring. “The fact that we have a forward-thinking government that is embracing technology and wanting the industry to move forward and improve productivity, as well as thinking about our ability to provide food for the British public, creates quite a conducive environment for us to suggest certain technologies are taken forward,” she said.
Philip Wynn, Chair of LEAF, who has spent 45 years managing and advising businesses in nearly every sector of the agricultural industry, suggested it is essential that the agricultural policy of the future has a clear vision and is implemented with clarity and leadership.
Given his experience, Wynn is clear that gene editing and new breeding techniques in UK food and farming will play a central role. “Key will be the ability to grow crops with fewer inputs,” he said. “Intelligent, sustainable farming systems are the future.”
Rothamsted Research Professor Jonathan Napier told the website that the UK has a wellspring of smart, well-trained research scientists who have been limited by Europe’s regulatory regime.
“The UK has a fantastic research base for plant related technology, but as part of the EU there has been no obvious route to market for that - it has been effectively untranslatable,” he commented.
“Ultimately, you are doing fundamental research funded by the UK taxpayer, but looking to exploit it outside the UK.”
Their comments echo the findings of a report authored by independent expert Graham Brookes last year, which found that the EU crop biotechnology regulatory system has already contributed to a significant loss of high value-added research scientist jobs and has left the UK subject to a crop trait research and development ‘gap’.
The paper concluded that the potential long-term benefits to the UK economy are likely to be highest if the UK sets its own path on EU crop biotechnology based on sound science, consistent with the regulatory systems operating in most other countries of the world.
Mark Buckingham, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council said: “It’s clear that Brexit represents a moment of opportunity, and that there could be tremendous potential benefits to the UK setting its own path on techniques such as editing individual genes in crops.
“A reset of agricultural policy to ensure that regulation rests on science is critical if we are to meet the challenges of the future.”