UK puts Genetic Technology at heart of sustainable future

12 May 2022 | Muriel Cozier

‘The Royal Society has always advocated that regulation of genetic technologies should be based on the outcome of any genetic changes…’

The Queen’s Speech, delivered on 10 May 2022, has set out the UK Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will ‘unlock the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production.’

Setting out the purpose of the Bill the speech, delivered by Prince Charles, said that it would remove unnecessary barriers inherited from the European Union to enable the development and marketing of precision bred plants and animals, which will drive economic growth and position the UK as the leading country in which to invest in agri-food research and innovation. In addition the main benefits of the Bill would be the enabling of precision breeding technologies to improve the sustainability, resilience, and productivity of agricultural systems. Elements of the Bill include: Creating a new, simpler regulatory regime for precision bred plants and animals that have genetic changes that could have arisen through traditional breeding or natural processes.

Highlighting the opportunities, the speech drew attention to work being done at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, UK, where wheat has been gene edited to have lower levels of asparagine. When heated to high temperatures this amino acid is converted to acrylamide, a probable cancer causing compound. Gene editing could help reduce the risk of acrylamide formation. It was also noted that since 2018, around 40% of small businesses and 33% of larger companies involved in plant breeding in Europe have stopped or reduced research and development activities relating to precision breeding technologies.

Responding to the details of the Bill, Professor Dame Linda Partridge, Vice President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society said: ‘The Royal Society has always advocated that regulation of genetic technologies should be based on the outcome of any genetic changes, rather than the current focus on the technology used to make the genetic change. This approach would ensure that safety, welfare, and environmental issues are all considered, and that legislation is future proofed against new technologies. We have previously called for a public forum to inform decisions on gene editing uses.’

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