Farming News - Genetic Technology Bill: enabling innovation to boost food security

Genetic Technology Bill: enabling innovation to boost food security

Legislation to cut red tape and support the development of innovative tech to grow more resistant, more nutritious, and more productive crops will be introduced in Parliament today (Wednesday 25 May).

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill will remove unnecessary barriers to research into new gene editing technology, which for too long has been held back by the EU’s rules around gene editing, which focus on legal interpretation rather than science – hindering the UK’s world leading agricultural research institutions. Outside of the EU and free to set rules that work in the best interest of the UK, this Bill will enable the development and marketing of precision bred plants and animals which will drive economic growth and attract investment into agri-food research and innovation in the UK.

Precision breeding technologies, like gene editing, have a range of benefits. They will give UK scientists the power to help farmers and producers develop plant varieties and animals with beneficial traits that could also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes, but in a more efficient and precise way. For example, precision breeding techniques can produce crops with fewer inputs, including pesticides and fertilisers, improving the sustainability, resilience and productivity of the UK’s food system. This will reduce costs to farmers and reduce impacts on the environment, as well as potentially increasing disease resistance in plants and animals, and boosting climate change resilience; with water scarcity likely to become a major impact of climate change, it is essential that plant breeding technology is able to keep pace with the challenge.

Precision breeding can also create safer food by removing allergens and preventing the formation of harmful compounds in food. Globally, between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of all crops grown are lost to pests and diseases. Precision breeding has the potential to create plant varieties and animals that have improved resistance to diseases; helping to reduce our reliance on pesticides and antibiotics, reduce impacts on the environment and improve the welfare of animals.  

Environment Secretary, 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 fertilisers. The UK has some incredible academic centres of excellence and they are poised to lead the way."

Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Gideon Henderson, said: 

“Substantial environmental, health and food security benefits can come from use of genetic technologies to precisely mimic breeding and improve our crops. The UK is home to some of the world’s leading research institutions in this area and these reforms will enable their scientists to use their expertise to make farming more resilient and our food healthier and more sustainable.”

This is different to genetic modification (GM) techniques, where genes from one species are introduced to another.

The Government is taking a step-by-step approach by creating legislation for plants first. No changes will be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare.  


NFU Vice President David Exwood said:

“This science-based legislative change has the potential to offer a number of benefits to UK food production and to the environment and will provide farmers and growers with another tool in the toolbox as we look to overcome the challenges of feeding an ever-growing population while tackling the climate crisis.”

Director of Science at the James Hutton Institute , Lesley Torrance, said:

“These crops are urgently needed to address future food security which is threatened by climate change and pests, and to help reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture whilst maintaining crop yields.

“The James Hutton Institute uses innovative precision breeding technologies which have the potential to speed the development of new crop varieties in a more reliable way.

“We welcome both the focus of the Bill which is on the assessment of the properties of the new crop and not the process used to develop it; and the transparency of this information which will be held on a public register.”

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) President, Mark Tufnell, said:

“Today’s announcement of the Genetic Technology Bill from the government is good news for the agricultural sector, environmentalists, and consumers.

“A research and innovation led food production policy is needed now more than ever, as we are faced with the most serious food security crisis for a generation. Bringing this legislation forward is a positive step in strengthening our domestic supply chains.

“New technologies will deliver clear benefits for the environment, in addition to maximising crop and livestock production by increasing crop yields and preventing losses from disease. The potential rewards are high, and the risks are no different from conventional breeding.”

Crop scientist at Rothamsted Research, Professor Nigel Halford, said:

“I am really excited to see this bill being introduced, and optimistic that this is another step on the way to science-based decision making on crop biotechnology.”

Leader of Development at Rothamsted Research, Professor Jonathan Napier, said:

“In plant biotechnology, regulatory burden has been an impediment to converting basic discoveries into useful products, so it is very welcome that this Bill will streamline the process and help further establish the UK as a world-leader in the development of GE and GM crops.”


Disease resistance and reduced chemical use  

Powdery mildew resistance:   

  • Powdery mildew disease is one of the main reasons why UK tomato growers spray fungicides on their crops.    
  • Researchers at The Sainsburys Laboratory have created a new tomato using gene editing, named Tomelo, that is resistant to powdery mildew infection. This will help reduce the need to use fungicides and improve food production of UK tomatoes.  
  • It took less than 10 months to generate this resistant line, demonstrating the ability of precision breeding to make the breeding process more efficient and precise.    

Climate resilience and food security  

Climate resilient wheat:  

  • Developing wheat that is resilient to climate change will help to increase food production from a crop that 2.5 billion people are dependent on globally.   
  • Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used gene editing techniques to identify a key gene in wheat that can be used to introduce traits such as heat resilience whilst maintaining high yield.  
  • This discovery presents an exciting opportunity to identify variations of the gene that can give wheat varieties resilience to climate change.  

Public health  

  Tomatoes biofortified with vitamin D:  (embargoed until 23 May)

  • Fifty percent of Europeans and one billion people world-wide have vitamin D insufficiency.    
  • Researchers at the John Innes Centre are testing a bio-fortified tomato that has been gene edited to have a high accumulation of vitamin D in the fruit and leaves.   
  • Using gene-editing to produce vitamin D in tomatoes could help millions of people globally who are deficient and can help reduce waste as the leaves could also be used to produce supplements.   

Animal Health and Welfare   

Disease resistant chickens:  

  • Bird flu is a major threat to farmed chickens worldwide, with some strains killing up to 100 per cent of birds in a flock. In some cases, variants of the virus can infect people and cause serious illness.   
  • In a collaboration between Imperial College London, the Pirbright Institute and the Roslin Institute, a research study has shown potential in using gene-editing to produce chickens that are resistant to the disease. The virus was no longer able to grow inside cells with the genetic change.   
  • The use of gene editing could help to control the spread of the disease which is urgently needed to protect chickens and to reduce the risk to human health.