Plant breeders welcome plant genetics focus in ScotGov Ag Bill consultation, but urge science-based approach on gene editing

Responding to the recent ScotGov consultation on a future Agriculture Bill for Scotland, the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has welcomed the document’s explicit focus on the importance of conserving plant genetic resources as the basis for the future resilience and sustainability of crop production in Scotland.

The consultation recognises that genetic diversity among domesticated plants and their wild relatives provides the foundation for developing resilient new varieties and agricultural systems, and that faced with increased pressure from pests, diseases and a changing climate, as well as a drive to reduce pesticide and fertiliser inputs, a broad plant genetic resource base will be vital in ensuring future food security. In the section entitled ‘Plant Genetic Resources and Plant Health’, ScotGov suggests that additional funding for the conservation of plant genetic resources may be necessary.

However, BSPB also urged the Scottish Government to ensure the full potential of these resources can be unlocked by changing its stance on the regulation of newer, more precise breeding technologies such as gene editing.

ScotGov has so far indicated its opposition to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill currently going through the Westminster Parliament. This legislation will exempt plant varieties developed using advanced breeding technologies such as gene editing from restrictive rules inherited from the EU, instead regulating them in the same way as conventional varieties. This mirrors the regulatory approach already adopted in other countries such as Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and the United States.

Commenting on the Ag Bill consultation, BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke said:

“We understand and share the concerns of other organisations in the agriculture sector that the Ag Bill consultation as a whole lacks clarity and detail on the future direction for productive and sustainable farming in Scotland. We support calls for constructive dialogue on a future strategy that protects food security, food production and Scotland’s agricultural supply chain, and which will contribute significantly to the country’s economy whilst delivering for the environment and biodiversity.

“However, from a plant breeding perspective, the document’s explicit recognition of the importance of crop genetic improvement for more sustainable agriculture, and the commitment to conserving diverse germplasm resources, is music to our ears.

“Maintaining access to genetic diversity is absolutely central to the business of crop improvement. The first gene banks were set up by plant breeders in the 1930s to conserve the valuable genetic diversity in past and present varieties, as well as landraces and wild relatives of cultivated crop species. Globally, it is estimated that plant breeding companies commit an average of 5% of their research budget to conserving genetic resources.

“And these resources provide the foundation for more productive, sustainable agriculture. Last year, a major study by HFFA Research GmbH concluded that, since 2000, progress in plant breeding has accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops. Without the contribution of improved crop varieties over the past 20 years, the HFFA study found that UK crop yields would be 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed in other parts of the world to meet our food needs, placing additional pressure on scarce global resources and causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions.

“However, the HFFA study also highlighted the challenges of maintaining current rates of yield improvement, and underlined the critical importance of access to new breeding techniques, such as gene editing, with the potential to accelerate the rate of progress in crop innovation.

“As Finlay Carson MSP, convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee in the Scottish Parliament, recently observed, these technologies can deliver the same outcomes as traditional breeding methods, but in a fraction of the time. BSPB supports his call, alongside Scotland’s farmers, scientists and agribusinesses, for Scottish Ministers to re-think their approach and let plant scientists, breeders and farmers use more advanced technologies such as gene editing. This will be vital to realise the full potential of efforts to conserve genetic resources for future food security,” concluded Ms Brooke.

View all news