London (04.11.16) – It is now more than four months since the great day when the British electorate decided that enough was enough and that it was time to leave the European Union. Many of the frightening consequences warned of during the preceding campaign have not materialised but it is early days and the worst (as well as the best) may still be to come.

While the techniques of plant breeding, transgenesis amongst them, will probably not take the uppermost place in the concerns of the new government, and especially in the minds of the ministers busy with designing new trading relations for the UK, there are, we suspect, people in the appropriate offices in London who are thinking of GM as well as of other agricultural considerations. We know little or nothing of them and, indeed, they may not actually exist but we rather suspect that they do.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that, on leaving, the UK will carry with it all the EU regulations pertaining to agricultural practices, including what is permitted and what is not with resect to GM crops and foods. It is a requirement of EU membership that the Union’s regulations and directives are written into all 28 national laws. Thus, they form part of the body of UK law and will remain so until such time as they may be changed but that will not be until the UK has left the EU, not before 2019 at the earliest.

Many consequences of that Brexit decision in June are going to occupy governmental considerations and national discussions for a long while yet. There is uncertainty about aspects of the UK’s national economic life – the nature and detail of the country’s future trading relations both with the EU and with countries around the world. It did not seem likely that the GM issue would surface for quite a while although faint murmurings were suggesting that in the appropriate places in government and public administration thought was indeed being given.

Then, just a few days ago, a light suddenly shone: George Eustice, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), responded to a written parliamentary question. The DEFRA Secretary of State was asked “whether her Department plans to change its policy on the use of genetically modified organisms in farming after the UK leaves the EU”. On her behalf, Mr. Eustice answered: “As part of the preparations for EU exit, the Government is considering possible future arrangements for the regulation of genetically modified organisms. The Government’s general view remains that policy and regulation in this area should be science-based and proportionate” (1).

Newspapers in the UK rapidly picked that up and elaborated on the story; they had little doubt what the minister meant. “Genetically modified crops will be grown across England after Britain pulls out of the European Union, under plans being drawn up by ministers. In a move that has been welcomed by scientists but condemned by environmentalists, the government has confirmed that it is looking at developing new rules to regulate GM technology post Brexit.” wrote The Times (32).The Daily Telegraph was little different (3). From across the ocean, the Wall Street Journal announced that “The promise of Britain_s exit from the European Union is to liberate the U.K. from the shackles of damaging EU regulations…. congratulations to Theresa May_s government for scoring its first Brexit victory by getting away from one of Brussels_s worst food obsessions.” (4). But Paul Temple, a well-known figure in UK farming, once Vice President of the National Farmers Union and who more than ten years ago was involved in the UK Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) trials for GM crops, had earlier been hesitant: “On the technology front, I’m not sure whether the UK will become more accepting of GMOs and other novel breeding techniques. Among the European countries, we’ve always been the most open to innovation—but our on-going ties to the EU will determine marketability” (5).

We would hope that in this potentially sympathetic atmosphere towards new plant breeding methods we might see a closer partnership developing between academic/public sector research and commercialisation. The 27 Member States remaining in the EU after the UK leaves are unlikely suddenly to see reason and change their attitudes to GM-crops to a more enlightened one than they have shown hitherto. Which means that, in Europe at least, the UK will constitute a relatively small market not worth a great deal of investment in GM by the commercial developers although, free from EU constraints, the UK might become a powerful voice fostering GM-technology in African and Asian countries with which Britain has had a long and close relationship.

UK plant science is outstanding in many areas though recently frustrated because of EU constraints on cultivation and severe delays in effecting approvals of new GM varieties and products. Moreover, the whole approval apparatus has been European. The major commercial seed developers have acquired the experience of seeing products through various regulatory procedures, When regulation for use in the UK becomes solely a British responsibility it would be of enormous value for further developments if they were to offer significant help to universities and other public sector organisations going into the regulatory world as well, perhaps, to new commercial start-ups which we should like to see arising in a vastly more encouraging agricultural development environment.

Nor must we forget that transgenesis and GM-crops is being more-and-more prominently partnered by gene editing techniques, the regulation of which is itself currently in a fluid state. Is gene editing in the same cartoony of genetic manipulation as genetic modification (transgenesis)? Does the transfer of “foreign” genes in much GM-technology represent a fundamental difference in concept and philosophy from the deliberate modification of existing genes? (6) Are the two sets of procedures indeed in principle indistinguishable? Many, maybe most, regulatory authorities seem currently undecided (7, 8); the European Court is going to have to decide (for the EU but not, this time, for the United Kingdom) (9, 10). And they cannot leave the decision hanging: cabbages modified with CRISPR-Cas9 have already been harvested and cooked according to a report from a Swedish university (11) while DuPont Pioneer and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center will collaborate to use CRISPR technology for editing crop genomes (12).

It seems that it’s all happening.

Sources:


1. Genetically Modified Organisms: Written question – 48641. House of Commons (21.10.16) (https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-10-13/48641/)

2. Oliver Wright (26.10.16). Farmers to grow GM crops under new agriculture rules. The Times (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/farmers-to-grow-gm-crops-under-new-agriculture-rules-fvcrw0vbg)

3. Michael Wilkinson (26.10.16). British farmers could grow GM crops after Brexit, reveals minister. Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/26/british-farmers-could-grow-gm-crops-after-brexit-reveals-ministe/)

4. Editorial. Britain_s GMO Liberation. London is unshackled from green hysteria on the Continent. Wall Street Journal (26.10,16) (http://www.wsj.com/articles/britains-gmo-liberation-1477525411?emailToken=JRr8f/l/YHyVitEza8w2zlw0Z6gOEKqGQ1SSKHHAN1LFqH3Sp6f4m/pq2oHq/Tr2)

5. Paul Temple (21.6.16). Getting on with it post Brexit. Global farmer Network (http://globalfarmernetwork.org/2016/07/getting-on-with-it-post-brexit/?utm_term=0_86f8d05c33-e633d1aed0-123893657)

6. Michael White (13.9.16). Is it a GMO or not? Pacific Standard (https://psmag.com/is-it-a-gmo-or-not-6403026f1eef#.k3mxqbim0)

7. Elke Ziegler (23.9.16). Gentechnik im rechtlichen Graubereich. Science ORF.at (http://science.orf.at/stories/2798582/)

8. Kathrin Zinkant (9.10.16). Ist das schon Gentechnik? Süddeutsche Zeiting (http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/gentechnik-dafuer-oder-dagegen-1.3195231)

9. Europäischer Gerichtshof muss über neue Gentechnik entscheiden. Informationsdienst Gentechnik (13.10.16) (http://www.keine-gentechnik.de/nachricht/32191/)

10. Agnes E Ricroch, Klaus Ammann and Marcel Kuntz (14.9.16). Editing EU legislation to fit plant genome editing. EMBO Press (http://embor.embopress.org/content/early/2016/09/14/embr.201643099.full)

11. Vegetables modified with CRISPR-Cas9 have been cultivated, harvested and cooked for the first time. Phys. Org (5.9.16) (http://phys.org/news/2016-09-vegetables-crispr-cas9-cultivated-harvested-cooked.html)

12. DuPont links CRISPR/Cas9 deal with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Genome Web (29.9.16) (https://www.genomeweb.com/gene-silencinggene-editing/dupont-inks-crisprcas9-deal-international-maize-and-wheat-improvement)

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  Brexit + 135 days: reflections on plant breeding in the UK