UK plant breeders support transparency on precision breeding techniques

BSPB will maintain a public register of precision-bred crop varieties to support transparency and openness of information within the supply chain.

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) fully supports the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill and its objective to provide greater access to more precise new breeding methods with the potential to accelerate progress in crop-related innovation at a time when it is increasingly and urgently needed.

Precision breeding techniques such as gene editing involve making desired changes to a plant which could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision. Developing an improved crop variety using conventional breeding – for example to improve its yield, nutritional quality or resistance to disease – can take up to 15 years, but gene editing can help reduce that timescale significantly.

BSPB and its members, representing virtually 100% of UK plant breeders, also support openness of information where precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have been used to develop new plant varieties.

In the interests of transparency, and as the basis for providing information to seed merchants, farmers and their customers, BSPB has written to Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, the Defra Minister responsible, to confirm that the UK plant breeding industry is proposing to establish and maintain a public register of all plant varieties approved for sale in the UK which have been developed using precision breeding techniques.

While Defra and the Food Standards Agency have made clear there is no scientific basis in terms of food or environmental safety for the Government to require statutory labelling of precision bred products, and that such a mandatory requirement would in any case be disproportionate and unenforceable, enabling choice and openness of information within the supply chain is at the forefront of this commitment.

This proposal will complement the statutory register of precision bred (PB) organisms which will be maintained by Defra. The BSPB register will ensure transparency of information in relation to commercial PB varieties, following confirmation of PBO status by the Secretary of State. The register will enable farmers and growers to identify which crop varieties have been developed using precision breeding techniques, and so provide the basis for producers and their supply chains to provide information in response to market and consumer demand.

The agri-food supply chain currently services a range of market channels in response to differentiated customer demands, ie:

  • organic and non-organic foods;
  • certified seed and non-seed (commodity) crops;
  • industrial and food grade oilseed rape;
  • sweetcorn (food) and forage maize (animal feed);
  • segregating by variety (eg Maris Piper potatoes, Pink Lady apples).

The same principles of market differentiation within the agri-food supply chain will apply equally to the products of new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing where there is differentiated market demand. The BSPB register will ensure openness and transparency from the point of seed marketing.

This BSPB commitment also builds on the proven systems of statutory plant variety registration, seed certification and marketing, which already deliver an assurance of quality, sustainability and traceability in relation to each new crop variety, and which over many years have delivered a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework to match the objectives society expects from agriculture in the face of challenges such as food security, biodiversity loss, climate change and environmental protection.

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