The UK has long been a global leader in plant sciences, establishing the world’s longest-running agricultural research station in 1843 to herald a culture of innovation that endures today.
This strong tradition of agricultural research and improvement has produced a range of developments to enhance food production, from pest-resistant wheat to the cancer-fighting Beneforte “superbroccoli“.
But the pressures on farming from climate change – and, therefore, the demands on plant science – are evolving and growing rapidly.
The UK imports around half the food it consumes from more than 180 countries, many of which face rising temperatures, more frequent droughts, degraded soils and new pest threats. This includes Morocco, where extreme weather recently contributed to a tomato shortage in British supermarkets.
Farmers both at home and overseas can no longer afford to rely on and wait for hardier crops produced by conventional breeding alone, which is unlikely to keep up with the rapidly changing challenges of new growing conditions.
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is therefore a crucial development in the race to climate-proof food systems, both in the UK and around the world. The recently approved law opens up new possibilities for science and innovation that could transform the pace of agricultural research and development – to the benefit of the entire global crop science sector.
The Bill allows scientists in the UK to apply the full extent of the knowledge gained in plant research over the last 30 to 40 years, which has also shaped the existing robust regulatory framework that addresses the safety of the consumer, and which has served us well for many years.
Precision breeding through gene editing is equivalent to purposefully accelerating what might otherwise be possible through natural processes and conventional breeding over a longer timeframe.
Given climatic conditions are changing ever more quickly, this is a powerful tool that allows crop scientists to target improvements in plant biology with greater accuracy and speed. Cutting down the time it takes to get a more resilient or higher yielding crop to farmers can be the difference between failed harvests, price hikes and food shortages, and continuous supply, food security and decent agricultural livelihoods.
Expanding the remit of scientific exploration and innovation in the UK also stands to generate new varieties, products and technologies that can be adapted and used by other parts of the world, including developing countries where agriculture is a primary economic driver.
The Bill also clears the way for a more diverse plant science sector by mainstreaming genetic technologies in a way that encourages more research among public sector institutes and start-ups. With full legal provision for precision breeding, more open innovation can help democratise crop science and level the playing field for farmers in the UK and around the world.
Ultimately, the Bill changes little about the kinds of crops that plant science needs to deliver to cope with the challenges on the horizon, but it does open up a more express route to achieving the mission.
For researchers like me, the Bill allows us to work directly with plant breeders and move products through the conventional plant breeding mechanism into the market and onwards to the consumer – with the aim of equipping farmers, including smallholders, with the latest technology needed to thrive. This may be homegrown legislation, but it has global significance.