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expert comments about GM and genetic technologies regulation, after Boris Johnson’s comments in his first speech as prime minister

Comment on GM and genetic technologies regulation after Boris Johnson’s comments about bio-sciences in his first speech as Prime Minister – “…let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world…”*

 

Prof Jonathan Jones, Plant Scientist, The Sainsbury Laboratory, said:

“I am pleased to see the new Prime Minister highlight scope, in the event of the UK’s departure from the EU, for a more science-based regulatory framework for crops that have been improved using GM methods or gene editing.  We have great potential to use this technology to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, by protecting crops using genes rather than chemical sprays, and I would welcome the opportunity to showcase the benefits of these methods to the world.”

 

Prof Dame Anne Glover, President Royal Society of Edinburgh, said:

“I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition in his first speech of the value of research both for the economy and for supporting a sustainable future.  The UK’s success and impact in research has been delivered by our ability to attract the best in the world to come and work and live here as well as through our influence, leadership and participation in the flagship EU Framework programmes such as Horizon 2020.  In order to support continued excellence and scientific progress it is vital that this continues.

“Scientific advances, such as the development of blight resistant crops, offer significant opportunities to address global challenges from feeding a growing population to mitigating the effects of climate change.  However realising the potential of new technologies to the full requires sustained dialogue with the public to build trust and understanding and evidence-based common regulatory frameworks for their development, exportation and use.”

 

Prof Joe Perry, ex-Chair of the European Food Safety Authority GM Panel, said:

“No doubt the Prime Minister will be attacked for this stance on GM.  But all that scientists ask is that GM crops that have gone through the regulatory process and been deemed safe should be marketed without the delays that have come from EU politics.”

 

Prof Julian Ma, Chair of Molecular Immunology, St George’s, University of London, said:

“It’s not just GM food that will be “liberated” but GM Molecular Farming in general, that develops plants for production of a wide range of valuable products, including medicines.”

 

Prof Colin Campbell, Chief Executive, The James Hutton Institute, said:

“GM and gene editing do indeed have great potential to develop crops with biological resistance to pathogens including blight in potatoes which is the third most important staple crop in the world.  Any new crops need to go through proper risk assessments and take account of what is socially acceptable in different parts of the world and to reflect local conditions and local market sensitivities.

“The James Hutton Institute is pioneering new ways of conventional breeding and uses GM and gene editing to help understand how to do this better.  We have also done many of the ecological risk assessments of GM crops.  We are interested in a wide range of crop traits including those that might be seen as public-good traits such as reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers, pesticides and GHG emissions.  New vertical indoor growing systems that allow us to grow multiple generations all year round will allow us to potentially half the 10-15y conventional breeding takes to produce a new variety.  The deployment of GM and gene editing also needs to help address the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity we see around the world.  Biological resistance would reduce the reliance on chemicals and potentially reduce the environmental risks often associated with synthetic biocides.”

 

Craig Rickard, Executive Director, Plant Biotechnology at CropLife International (the crop protection and plant science industry association – see more info in declaration of interests), said:

“A move to a science-based, predictable, and transparent regulatory process would be a welcome move from the debilitating system which has stifled agriculture innovation in Europe for decades to the detriment of Europeans and the global environment.”

 

Prof Huw Jones, Professor of Translational Genomics for Plant Breeding, Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University, said:

“It is clear that sustainable future farming will need new crop varieties to integrate with other management practices to resist pests, diseases and extremes of weather with little or no chemical intervention.  Where they are shown to be safe and effective, I welcome initiatives that could make public good GM crops, alongside other modern plant breeding methods, available to farmers and consumers who would then have a choice.”

 

Dr Benjamin Lyons, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Exeter, said:

“Surveys show that Europeans are much less concerned about genetic modification than they were 10 years ago.  Furthermore, we’ve recently shown that skeptics are open to new information about the scientific consensus on GM crop safety.”

 

Prof John Dupre, Professor in Philosophy of Science, and Director of Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, University of Exeter, said:

“While Mr Johnson is right that there are genuine and perhaps exciting possibilities for genomically modified crops, he is quite wrong to suppose that these should be “liberated” from serious review of the consequences of their introduction and regulation of their use.  Any technology for intervention in a system as complex as a plant or an animal must be proportionately sophisticated.  Even with the latest genome modification techniques – genome editing like CRISPR – it takes a great deal of work to make sure that only the desired changes have been induced.  And it is even more difficult to be sure that the only consequence of the change introduced is the one that was intended.  Beyond the complexity of the intervention in the organism itself there are wider possible implications.  For example, are we doing enough to maintain the crop diversity that is likely to become increasingly vital as the environment undergoes rapid change?

“There may well be an important future role for genetic modification of our food crops and livestock, but opening this possibility to an unregulated free market is a terrifying prospect that could lead to all kinds of unanticipated bad consequences.”

 

Prof Dale Sanders FRS, Director, John Innes Centre, said:

“A fresh look at the regulatory framework that has been holding back so many of the potential societal benefits the UK bioscience sector can offer to agriculture in the UK and globally is very welcome.  Among the many potential benefits from modern genetic technologies is dramatic reduction in agrichemical use, especially as this relates to pesticides and fertilisers.  Such benefits can reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture and enhance sustainable integration of agricultural systems with the natural environment.  An approach to regulation based on what is produced rather than on technologies used to deliver the product would be very sensible.”

 

Prof Ian Graham, Director of BioYork and Weston Chair of Biochemical Genetics, University of York, said:

“While we run the serious risk of losing much from the erosion of our research partnership with Europe post brexit, any policy that helps realise the enormous societal and economic potential of our excellent research base that underpins the Bioeconomy would be welcome, whether or not that involves genetic modification in its various forms.”

 

Prof Sarah Gurr, Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Exeter, said:

“Fungi and oomycetes cause huge harvest losses – both in the field and post-harvest.  We face a future fighting blights and blasts and smut diseases of our calorie and commodity crops.  Perhaps the most familiar one is that which blighted the Irish potatoes in the 19th century and which continues to devastate our potatoes and tomatoes today.  We do not have enough weapons in our armoury to fight crop disease as resistance to fungicides (just like AMR in bacteria) has become widespread and so we need to invoke use of genetic modification of plants by gene editing and cleverer breeding strategies.  We have some superb scientists who can do this work in the UK at The Sainsbury Lab and The James Hutton Institute.”

 

* https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/boris-johnsons-first-speech-as-prime-minister-24-july-2019

 

Declared interests

Prof Jonathan Jones: “Professor Jonathan Jones is a senior investigator at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, and uses molecular and genetic approaches to study disease resistance in plants.  He received his Ph.D from the Plant Breeding Institute and Cambridge University in 1980, conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard, and then worked at an early agbiotech startup, AGS in California, from 1983-8.  Since 1988, Jones worked at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (www.tsl.ac.uk), funded by David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation.  He was Head of Sainsbury Laboratory 1994-7, 2003- 2009, and Professor at University of East Anglia since 1997.  He was elected to EMBO in 1998, FRS in 2003 and Foreign Associate of US National Academy of Sciences in 2015.

Jones is cofounder of and former science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology, and also co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market (www.norfolkplantsciences.com).

He was on the Science advisory board of Nomad Biosciences in Halle, Germany, which aims to produce human pharmaceutical and other valuable proteins using plant viruses rather than GM plants, and was a science advisor to start-up Scottish biotech company Synpromics (http://www.synpromics.com).

Jones is on the board of www.isaaa.org and the science advisory board of the 2Blades foundation (www.2blades.org).  He has contributed to advice to governments and international boards on GM crops (https://royalsociety.org/policy/publications/2009/reaping-benefits/), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/292174/cst-14-634a-gm-science-update.pdf

http://www.sciencecouncil.cgiar.org/system/files_force/ISPC_StrategyTrends_Biotechnology.pdf).

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, and conducting field trials to evaluate how well they work to protect the crop in the field.  One blight resistance gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (www.simplot.com).

See also http://www.tsl.ac.uk/groups/jones-group/.”

Prof Dame Anne Glover: “No interests to declare other than working for a University.”

Prof Joe Perry: “No competing interests – never received a penny from any company on GM issues.”

Prof Julian Ma: “I have no interests to declare, other than that I am a publicly funded research scientist.”

Prof Colin Campbell: “Nothing to declare.”

Craig Rickard: “CropLife International is an association of member companies that produce crop technologies including pesticides and plant biotechnology.”

Prof Huw Jones: “Direct employment: Aberystwyth University 2016 – current; Rothamsted Research 1998 – 2016.

Other fee-paid work from relevant organisations, consultancies etc.: BBSRC grant review panels 2000 – current; FSA ACNFP 2019 – current; Expert, GMO panel, European Food Safety Authority 2009 – 2018.  As external examiner of the university PhD viva process, I have sometimes receive a small honorarium in addition to travel and accommodation costs from the university hosting the examination (since 2007 I have been external examiner for ten PhD viva voce examinations in UK and abroad).  I have received small payments of royalties from publishers for academic books written or edited.

Membership, affiliation, trusteeships or decision-making position with relevant organisations: Fellow of Royal Society of Biology 2002 – current.  Honorary Professor, School of Biosciences, Nottingham University 2009 – 2018.  Honorary researcher, Rothamsted Research UK, 2016-2019.  Member of the EPSO Plants for the Future. Gene editing working group 2019 – current.  Chair, UK Plant Sciences Federation Working Group on Regulatory Frameworks 2014-2015.  Monogram steering committee, 2011 – 2015.  Member of BBSRC pool of experts, Jan 2017 – current.

Other personal interests: I am invited to attend typically between 5 and 10 conferences or other meetings per year where the travel and accommodation (if applicable) are paid for by the host organisations.  I have never received a fee to participate in such meetings.

Indirect financial or non-financial support from relevant organisations: I am a member of the IBERS Aberystwyth University research team in receipt of a BBSRC Core Strategic Programme Grant Resilient Crops BB/CSP1730/1 2017 – 2022.  I am one of four academic supervisors for an Aberystwyth University/Syngenta PhD studentship, using molecular genetics to design sentinel plants for detecting biotic stress, 2017-2020.  I am a UK representative of an EU COST Action PlantEd ‘Genome editing in plants – a technology with transformative potential’ 2019 – 2022.  I am a UK representative, working group and management committee member of an EU COST Action iPlanta CA15223. ‘Modifying plants to produce interfering RNA’ 2017 – 2020.  I led a research project: Smart Labels for GMO foods, Aberystwyth University Transforming Social Science Fund, £1K Jan, 2017.  Rothamsted Research was in receipt of funding from BBSRC Tools and Resources Development Fund BB/L017768/1, 2014 – 2016, HD Jones & K Edwards, Development of specific TALENs for precision engineering in wheat.”

Dr Benjamin Lyons: “I have no interests which might be regarded by a reasonable and objective third party as giving rise to a conflict with your role as an SMC expert in this story.”

Prof John Dupre: “My interest in this topic is reflected in my role as Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics working group on the genome modification of farm animals.  However, the views here expressed are my own and I am not writing on behalf of the Nuffield Council.”

Prof Dale Sanders: “Personal: None.  Institution: The John Innes Centre receives Government and private sector funding inter alia for research on the genetic improvement of crops.  At present work with genetic modification and genome editing is conducted at the level of proof-of-principle only, and no crops are in development that use these technologies.”

Prof Ian Graham: “Ian is a member of UKRI-BBSRC Governing Council – but he is not providing the quote in that capacity.”

Prof Sarah Gurr: “No declarations of interest.”

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