War of words erupts as gene-editing bill looms

Wording in the draft legislation for a bill covering gene-editing is potentially misleading to the public, a group of 50 international scientists and policy experts has claimed.

The group has written to the government ahead of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill’s third reading in parliament.

Campaigners against the technology have suggested the bill’s progress through parliament is too hasty, with greater scrutiny of the technology needed.  

This message has been given further weight by the signatories to a joint letter who have criticised particular wording in the bill.

They suggested that the term “precision breeding” should not be used because it could mislead the public into thinking gene editing was a controlled technique.  

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The letter claimed gene editing was not a precision process because it caused unintended damage at both the target site and elsewhere in the organism’s genes. The group also railed against the use of the word “breeding”. 

“Gene editing is conducted on plant cells grown in dishes, into which the gene editing tool is introduced to carry out the intended genetic alterations,” the letter said.

“The gene-editing process bears no resemblance to ‘breeding’ as the word is normally defined and understood.”

 It suggested precision breeding was being used as a marketing message to persuade the public that gene editing was controlled and safe. Instead, the letter called for legislation to be redrafted under the title “Genetic Modification Technologies (Food, Feed and Agriculture) Bill”.   

This, it said, would be better understood by the public and more accurately reflect the techniques used.

Claims rebuffed

However, plant breeders have rebuffed the claims. Nigel Moore of KWS UK and a former chair of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) said: “Gene editing is the latest, most precise technique which allows targeted and desired changes to be made.”      

Mr Moore dismissed the letter’s claims as a “diversionary attempt to split hairs over terminology”.

“It suggests that those opposed to the bill are avoiding the scientific arguments. There is no doubt at all that advanced genetic technologies such as genome editing are much more precise than any plant breeding method that has gone before,” he said. 

The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) also confirmed that plants produced using genome editing techniques that mimic natural genetic changes carried no additional risks to those produced by conventional breeding, Mr Moore pointed out.

Primary objective 

Niab chief executive Prof Mario Caccamo also issued a rebuttal of the letter’s claims. 

“The primary objective of plant breeding is to generate novel sources of genetic variation and then select the most promising offspring for further testing and development,” he said.

“Over a period of many years, plant scientists and breeders have developed increasingly targeted ways of generating genetic diversity and selecting for desired traits.” 

The advanced breeding techniques under discussion in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill were the most precise crop improvement methods available today, producing genetic diversity at very targeted locations, allowing an unprecedented level of precision, he insisted.

“Varieties bred using these techniques have few off-target effects, in stark contrast to approaches used in the past, such as gamma ray radiation, that have been used to create many varieties still grown in both conventional and organic farming systems,” Prof Caccamo added.  

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