Science Speaks - Blog by ISAAA

Precision Breeding Act Unlocks Key Technologies for UK’s Food Security

By Clement Dionglay
March 29, 2023

At the Opening of the Parliament on May 10, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II announced in her speech the creation of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill to encourage agricultural and scientific innovation in the United Kingdom (UK). The Bill is set to unlock the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production.

Precision Breeding Bill’s timeline

The Precision Breeding Bill was sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and welcomed by experts, scientists, and scientific institutions and organizations in the UK. It is also meant to ease the application of particular precision breeding techniques that will not need to go through the restrictive rules for genetically modified (GM) crops since the resulting plants could have been a product of natural selection or conventional breeding.

On May 25, 2022, the Precision Breeding Bill was introduced to Parliament. In a press release, the government said the legislation would make the UK "the best place in the world to invest in agri-food research and innovation" as the Bill will remove unnecessary barriers to research into new gene editing technology and bring the UK in line with other countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Japan.

On the Bill's introduction to the Parliament, the former Environment Secretary, Rt Hon. George Eustice said, "Outside the EU we are free to follow the science. These precision technologies allow us to speed up the breeding of plants that have natural resistance to diseases and better use of soil nutrients so we can have higher yields with fewer pesticides and fertilizers."

In November 2022, the Precision Breeding Bill was introduced to the House of Lords for debate after its third reading in the House of Commons on October 31, 2022. The opportunities brought by the Bill include the development of climate-resilient wheat, non-browning banana, and disease-resistant chickens. As the Bill entered the House of Lords, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser Gideon Henderson said, "This is an important time for agricultural science. The ability to use gene editing to make precise, targeted changes to the genetic code of organisms, in a way that can mimic traditional breeding, enables development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests, healthier to eat, and more resilient to drought and heat as climate changes."

On February 3, 2023, the Bill passed its third and final reading at the House of Lords with no further amendments and was moved to the Commons for consideration of the Lords' previous amendments. The final reading at the House of Lords was the last chance for the Lords to change the Bill. It was there that Rt Hon. the Lord Benyon of the Conservative Party signified the King's consent for the Bill. During the opening, he said, “My Lords, I have it in command from His Majesty the King to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, has consented to place his interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill."

Precision Breeding Bill receives Royal Assent, becomes law

Ten months after the Queen's speech in May 2022, in a historical event following an agreement by both Houses on the text of the bill, the Precision Breeding Bill received Royal Assent on March 23, 2023. The Bill is now an Act of Parliament and law. The Act is a major step in unlocking growth and innovation in new technologies, reinforcing food security in the face of climate change, and ensuring that England becomes a world leader in agri-food innovation. England has joined Argentina, the United States, Australia, and Japan, which have already enacted similar legislation, driving innovation on a global scale and helping fight the greatest challenges facing the world.

Food Minister Mark Spencer said, “The Genetic Technology Act is fantastic news for British consumers and farmers. Precision Breeding technologies are the future of food production not just at home, but around the world, and this Act will put our nation at the forefront of this revolution.”

Under the Precision Breeding Act, a new science-based and streamlined regulatory system will be introduced to facilitate greater research and innovation in precision breeding while maintaining stricter regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The government will take a step-by-step approach and enable precision breeding technologies for plants first, followed by animals later.

Support for the Act from key institutions

Support has again poured in as the Bill received the Royal Assent. 

Professor Mario Caccamo, chief executive of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), said: "The new regulatory framework confirmed today should provide a more straightforward route to market for innovations like these. Gene editing offers significant opportunities to support healthier, safer and more sustainable farming and food production systems, at a time when such advances are urgently and increasingly needed."

Rothamsted Research Chief Executive Professor Angela Karp said: “The new law will significantly speed up our ability to test enhanced crops in the field. With the triple threats of climate change, a burgeoning human population, and widespread biodiversity loss hanging over us, the sooner we can get more resilient, more nutritious, nature-friendly crops to market the better.”

The British Society of Plant Breeders welcomed the Royal Assent and said the Society fully supports the Government’s ambitions for this ground-breaking new legislation to boost investment, research, and innovation in our sector and for this to support the delivery of a wide range of environmental and sustainability objectives as well as improved food quality and security of supply.

Garlich von Essen, Secretary General of Euroseeds, said: "The UK’s approval of the bill on precision breeding is a welcome development that reflects the country’s commitment to science-based policymaking and innovation."

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