Gene-editing Bill should not ‘force products on Scotland’, says minister

·3-min read

A Bill that would ease regulations around gene editing in the food sector should not “force products on Scotland”, a minister has said.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill was introduced earlier this month at Westminster and would create a separate regulatory category for gene editing – a practice which can change traits within a plant or animal much more quickly than traditional selective breeding.

Officials and scientists draw a distinction between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and genetic modification (GM), in which DNA from one species is introduced to another.

After an EU ruling in 2018, it is regulated in the same stringent way as GM organisms, a situation the Government is now unpicking as the UK has left the bloc.

In a letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, Scottish Government environment minister Mairi McAllan said Scotland would not make the same changes as England if the Bill passed.

Ms McAllan also took issue with engagement between the UK and Scottish governments in the lead-up to the Bill being introduced, and claimed changes in regulation in England would have an impact on the rest of the devolved administrations.

Under the Internal Market Act 2020, items that meet regulatory standards in one part of the country must be allowed to be sold elsewhere in the UK.

Critics of the Act, including the Scottish Government and the SNP group at Westminster, described it as a “power grab” before it was passed.

An impact assessment published alongside the new Bill said: “Whilst this legislative change will only take effect in England, the mutual recognition element of the United Kingdom Internal Market (UKIM) Act means that products entering the market in England would also be marketable in both Scotland and Wales.

“Thus, there would be no tangible barrier to precision-bred organisms entering the market across Great Britain.”

Ms McAllan wrote: “Such an outcome is unacceptable.

Mairi McAllan in Holyrood
The minister wrote to Environment Secretary George Eustice and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack (Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA)

“The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Internal Market Act, and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of its devolved powers to set standards within devolved policy areas.”

Ms McAllan urged ministers to ensure Scotland is not impacted by the legislation, saying: “If the UK Government is determined to press ahead with this legislation, it must take steps to ensure that its revisions to the definition of a GMO (genetically modified organism) do not force products on Scotland which do not meet standards here without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”

She also raised concerns about the impact of the Bill on Scotland’s food exports to the EU.

“As your impact assessment for the Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill acknowledges, removing gene-edited products from England’s GM regulatory regime would mean divergence from the EU approach and as such could have implications for compliance costs and future trade,” she wrote.

“The impact assessment also raises the prospect that new trade barriers could come in the form of checks and certification requirements on UK food exports entering the EU’s single market.

“It states that this would not only affect products exported to the EU which contain precision-bred plant material, but also those in the same product categories which do not.”

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.”

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