Plant Breeders welcome positive progress towards precision bred food and feed approval process.

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has welcomed proposals considered by the Food Standards Agency Board today for a streamlined approach to the regulation of precision bred food and feed products under the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.

BSPB said the approach recommended by the FSA follows the science and could unlock significant investment and economic activity in the use of precision breeding techniques. By accelerating the development of improved crop varieties, more precise breeding technologies such as CRISPR/Cas gene editing will help plant breeders keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change.

Mirroring the regulatory process already adopted in Canada, and the approach recently proposed in the EU, the FSA is recommending a move away from the lengthy regulated products process currently applied to GMOs, novel foods and irradiated foods, opting instead for a more streamlined process for Precision Bred Organisms (PBOs), more proportionate to the scientific evidence of risk.

This is in line with expert scientific advice from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) that there is ‘no evidence that PBOs are intrinsically more hazardous than traditionally bred organisms (TBOs)’and is consistent with the definition set out in the Precision Breeding Act that confirmed PBOs contain genetic changes which could have occurred in nature or through conventional breeding.

Commenting on the FSA recommendations, BSPB chairman Robin Wood said:

“The plans unveiled at today’s Board meeting confirm the adoption of a more proportionate, science-based approach to approving precision bred products for marketing as food and feed. Until very recently, there were serious concerns that the FSA was planning to require separate risk assessment, expert committee scrutiny, public consultation, approval by both Houses of Parliament and Secretary of State sign off for each and every precision bred product. This would have been entirely disproportionate to the scientific evidence of risk, and out of line with the underpinning rationale of the Act that precision bred products are no different from conventionally bred. This more streamlined approach is likely to encourage interest and investment from plant breeding businesses of all sizes, across a wide range of crops and traits, which is fantastic news.”

Under arrangements currently planned to be presented to Parliament in summer 2024, and entering into force at the end of 2024, the streamlined FSA approach would give applicants responsibility for undertaking initial triage and determining whether a PBO should be regulated as Tier 1 or Tier 2, subject to technical guidance.

Tier 1 products are defined by FSA as very similar to traditionally bred products, which consumers are familiar with and for which potential safety risks are understood. Tier 2 products are defined by FSA as novel foods or PBOs with compositional changes which could affect toxicity or allergenicity, or other potential safety concerns. These PBO products would be subject to case-by-case risk assessment.

The vast majority of PBOs are expected to be classified as Tier 1. For these PBOs, the FSA’s recommended approach would require applicants to notify FSA of the Tier 1 determination, providing details of the nature and purpose of the genetic change(s) introduced using precision breeding. A public register would be maintained by FSA providing information about notified PBOs.

Once authorised for food and feed marketing, precision bred crop varieties would continue to be subject to existing statutory variety registration and seed certification requirements prior to marketing as seed or propagating material.

Mr Wood reiterated BSPB’s commitment to transparency through the development of a public register of precision-bred varieties:

“Plant breeders fully support transparency. Last year BSPB wrote to the Defra Minister responsible, Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, to reiterate the Society’s commitment to maintain a public register of all precision-bred plant varieties approved for sale in the UK, so enabling choice and openness of information within the supply chain. We recognise that this will be an important resource for farmers who do not wish to grow precision bred varieties, such as registered organic farmers who are currently prohibited by law from doing so.”

Mr Wood also called for clarity from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales over UK-wide regulation of precision bred products:

“The recommendations considered at today’s FSA Board indicate that regulatory arrangements in England will be very similar those proposed in the EU, with no separate requirements for food and feed marketing of precision bred products considered to be equivalent to their conventionally bred counterparts. While the Scottish and Welsh governments have previously opposed the Precision Breeding Act, indicating their preference to remain aligned with the EU, they have remained tight-lipped over their plans since the EU’s deregulatory proposals were published in July. To deliver a harmonised UK-wide approach, we would urge both devolved administrations to provide clarity sooner rather than later on how they plan to move forward on this issue.”

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