Scientists and policy experts: The term “precision breeding” misleads and has no place in serious legislation

September 8, 2022 by Staff Writer

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill returns to Parliament after the summer recess.

Its third reading and report stage had been scheduled for Wednesday14 September. However, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, parliamentary business is temporarily suspended. We expect the bill to complete the Commons stage soon after the national period of mourning ends and normal parliamentary business resumes.

The bill proposes to deregulate a wide range of plants and animals which have been created using gene editing technology. It does this by creating a new subclass of genetically modified organisms – so-called “precision bred organisms” – which exists only in England and which, it claims, could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding.

Thus far, the bill has proceeded through Parliament unamended, not on the strength of its arguments and the validity of its provisions, but because a strong Conservative majority and ‘party line’ voting has meant that every single amendment has been outvoted.

Beyond GM has been very active in alerting MPs to aspects of the bill that we feel are unclear and unsound. Among these is the use of the term “precision breeding” in the short title and throughout the text of bill.

Throughout the bill’s passage, we have maintained that the term “precision breeding” is unscientific and poorly defined and, further, that it is being used to obscure the true nature of the changes being proposed.

Clear language is the basis of good legislation and in our briefs to MPs we have repeatedly proposed that the scientifically correct term, “genome editing”, should be used instead.

This has been lonely work. It has been many years since our members of parliament have been truly engaged in the issue of agricultural genetic engineering and many MPs are not well versed in biotechnology or have simply fallen under the spell of a promised ‘quick fix’.

In addition, our outreach over the last year suggests that many members of parliament have simply not read the bill and have relied on briefs from the government that misrepresent the science and reinforce the use of inappropriate language in the bill.

It turns out, however, that we are not alone.

Scientists and policy experts speak out

joint statement signed by 75 international scientists and policy experts has criticised the British government for the use of the term “precision breeding” in this legislation.

The experts note that precision breeding is neither precise, nor breeding as it is commonly understood. Their statement contends: “This term is technically and scientifically inaccurate and therefore misleads Parliament, regulators, and the public.” It makes clear that the term precision breeding “should be deleted from the title of the UK government’s bill and replaced with terminology that is accurate and purely descriptive”.

London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou who helped coordinate the letter said in an explanatory statement: “The term ‘precision breeding’, in addition to its presence in the title and text of the UK draft bill, is also increasingly being used in the EU by those who want to see gene-edited crops, foods, and animals deregulated…The aim of the bill’s title, and the wider use of the term ‘precision breeding’, would appear to be to give gene editing the appearance of controllability, predictability, familiarity, and therefore safety, implying that biosafety controls can be loosened or abolished. The signatories to the statement consider this a dangerous development and express strong disagreement with this use of the term”.

A need for clarity

It’s not as if the government was not warned about this. In his evidence to the public bill committee Dr Michael Edenborough QC, a barrister with a background in biology, addressed the loose use of language, describing it as “uncertainty built on uncertainty”. This uncertainty builds from the very first page of the bill, with the use of the words “precision breeding” in its title.

In July of this year, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published a new document, Genome Editing Vocabulary.

ISO recognises that, in a complex field such as biotechnology, clarity and standardisation of terms is essential for communication between scientists, in research papers and also in communicating scientific ideas to a wider public.

Its new document provides an internationally agreed-upon list of terms to “improve confidence in and clarity of scientific communication, data reporting and data interpretation in the genome editing field”. The term “precision breeding” does not appear in this document.

Government must act

These are important contributions to the debate around the language of the bill and our MPs and peers must take note of them and remove this inappropriate language from the bill.

Beyond GM Director, Pat Thomas comments:

“There is a great deal to be concerned about in this bill; it is hastily drafted and full of holes. The short title of the bill sets both the tone and the intent for the legislation. To use a marketing slogan rather than the correct scientific term makes a mockery of the government’s contention that it aspires to science-based regulation. We are calling on the Speaker of the House to intervene and ensure that the short title is changed”.

Thomas confirms that Beyond GM has today written to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House, making a case for the removal of the words “precision breeding” from the short title.

“If our MPs and peers are not prepared to take appropriate action, it falls to civil society to raise this important issue. We are grateful to the scientists and policy experts who have come together to do so and fully support the views expressed in the joint statement. It is now up to the government to take note of what is being said and act on it”.

She notes the term “precision breeding” is not used in legislation anywhere else in the world, is confusing for consumers and should be removed from all parts of the bill, concluding: “This will be the acid test of how seriously the government is invested in its own rhetoric about science-based regulation”.

 

  • For more information about the Genetic Technology Bill email pat@beyond-gm.org
  • Contact information for Dr Michael Antoniou can be found in the links to the statement, above.
  • This article was updated on 9/9/22 to reflect the change in the parliamentary schedule due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • This article was updated 15/9/22 to reflect new sign-ons to the joint statement from international scientific and policy experts.