Innovation: the UK moves forward on precision breeding techniques

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While the EU is waiting for the European Commission to publish its proposal on the legal framework for new genomic techniques (NGTs) next June 7, in the UK last March 23 the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act was passed after a process of about a year.  

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.

The Act emphasizes how these techniques will increase the sustainability of agriculture in the UK, for example, with drought- and disease-resistant crops, reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and help to breed animals protected from contracting harmful diseases.

Under the provisions of this Act, a new simplified, science-based regulatory system will be introduced to facilitate research and innovation in precision breeding, while stricter regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will remain in place.

Unlike the European Commission’s intention, which is to limit its proposal to cisgenesis and targeted mutagenesis only for plants, the UK Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act covers both plants and precision-bred animals developed through techniques such as gene editing. The key element emphasized by the law is that, unlike GMOs, these techniques produce genetic changes that could have occurred through traditional breeding or that occur naturally.

The law passed is not the end of the process. The law itself provides a framework for more detailed implementing rules that will be introduced through secondary legislation in the coming months, to ensure measures that are proportionate to the scientific evidence of risk and similar to those currently applied to conventionally bred plant varieties.

The law includes the following elements :

– Exclude plants and animals produced through precision breeding technologies from the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) legislation.

-Introduce two reporting systems: one for precision organisms used for research purposes and the other for commercialization. The information collected will be published on a public register.

-Establish a proportionate regulatory system for precision-bred animals to ensure that animal welfare is safeguarded.

-Establish a new science-based approval process for food and feed derived from the use of precision-bred plants and animals.

At this stage (March 2023), the UK FSA (*) doesn’t “envisage that additional traceability requirement beyond those in General Food Law will be necessary.  However, further work will be undertaken as we develop policy to understand the trade and enforcement aspects, including how the Windsor Framework and UKIMA will operate in practical terms.

The Bill provides as well discretionary power for ministers to make regulations to require the FSA to establish and maintain a public register of information relating to precision-bred organisms (PBOs) authorized for use as food/feed in England. FSA underlines that a register could include, for example, information about the type and nature of the authorized PBO, any unique reference/identifier it has been given, links to the published scientific risk assessment, legislation by which the product has been authorized, etc. FSA’s consumer research indicates that consumers supported the idea of a register of PBOs.