By Hitesh Pant
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill currently being tabled in Parliament has come
under significant scrutiny because of its implications for the future of food access and availability
in the UK. Supporters of the bill argue that this gene-editing technology is essential to drive
agricultural productivity to grow resilient crops and enhance the UK’s food security. However,
small farmers and food activists claim that the bill’s reliance on technological interventions ignores the underlying structural barriers limiting the capability of the country’s rural workers to grow food on their own terms, and instead offers more financial concessions to large agri-biotech firms. This article situates the debates over the Precision Breeding Bill within a longer global history of agriculture, and calls for a measured approach to food policy that necessitates a closer scrutiny of past errors.
Science to Policy Statement
The UK government is pushing to use genetic technologies in agriculture as a means to achieve
‘food security’. The patchy historical record of the actual benefits of such technologies puts the
government’s claims in doubt. An overreliance on new technologies to solve local and global
food crises may prove disastrous unless a wider range of perspectives are accounted for in policy
Key words: agriculture, biotechnology, farmers, food security
In May 2022, the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued a press release about introducing a new bill in Parliament that promised “to cut red tape and support the development of innovative tech to grow more resistant, more nutritious, and more productive crops” . As of January 2023, the ‘Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill’ is awaiting passage to the third reading at the House of Lords , the final step before the King formally enshrines it as law .
According to DEFRA, precision breeding is a catch-all term that encompasses a wide variety of modern technologies that offer the potential to streamline and accurately focus genetic changes in a target organism . The department has pushed precision breeding as a magic bullet capable of solving the environmental, health, and financial issues afflicting the UK’s farming system. It has
been touted as a technology with the potential to develop crops that require little to no fertilisers, and have the resilience to new pathogens and extreme weather events attributable to climate change [5, 6]. Proponents of precision breeding believe it is a critical tool that could boost the economic benefits of the country’s farming constituency, while also helping the UK government address their Clean Growth Strategy, a set of proposals outlining the means to decarbonise the country’s economy.
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the non-departmental public body established to assess the biophysical threats of releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the environment, has seemingly given the green light for the application of precision breeding
technologies . The public health fears raised by the outbreak of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the UK and the outcry over the first shipments of genetically modified (GM) crops to the European Union (EU) in the late 1990s had elevated public scepticism over the ethics of biotechnologies and their potential threats to human health . It was during this period that the EU had more-or-less established a blanket ban on the import and sale of GM
crops. But precision breeding’s purported safety has presented DEFRA with a chance to dispel these concerns now that an expert panel has deemed it to be as innocuous as traditional plant breeding .
The case to streamline legislative barriers for the application of precision breeding was emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which exacerbated the global food crisis and
drastically reduced the supply of barley, maize, and wheat [8, 9, 10]. Fertiliser prices
also soared to record highs, because the export of natural gas, a significant input in the
production of nitrogen fertilisers, was sharply restricted by Russia . Here, precision
breeding offered both a local and global solution for food security – a technology that
would enable the production of crops without any resource bottlenecks.
This rosy image, however, belied the growing opposition that the bill faced ever since it was
announced. And at the core of this resistance were the same group of people that the bill
was supposed to benefit – UK’s small farmers.
The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a union representing the UK’s small farmers and land workers, immediately denounced the bill. They claimed that DEFRA was purposefully deceiving the public by attempting to classify precision breeding as a distinct technology from genetic modification, a semantic shift that would open the floodgates for the sale of GMOs . Their concerns were backed by a collective of 90 international scientists and policy experts, who maintained that the
terminology deployed by the department was misleading. Firstly, they claimed that precision breeding was not ‘precise’, because gene-editing had the potential to induce uncontrollable mutations. Secondly, the group argued that neither was it ‘breeding’, since the process involved human intervention over the growth of cells in a laboratory. For both sets of activists, the bill
was a marketing ploy, backed by the biotechnology industry “to persuade the public and regulators that gene-editing technology is natural, accurate, controllable” .
But the concerns of small farmers and food activists went beyond precision breeding’s linguistic misnomer. They felt that the bill did nothing to address the real economic hardships facing much of the country’s rural farmers. From structural barriers that restricted the opportunities for young people to enter farming, the lack of financial support for small family farms, and the massive cash
fallouts given to large landowners based on the EU’s controversial Common Agricultural Policy, to the negligence shown towards supporting small-scale sustainable farming practices, organisations like the LWA believed that the bill’s focus on productivity and the faith in biotechnologies as a simple fix to the pervasive symptoms of a faltering food system were grossly inadequate [15, 16].
This conflict over the objectives of food policy has played out before on a global scale. As historians of science and technology have shown, the struggle over the claims of productivity was one of the defining features of the so-called Green Revolution [17, 18]. In the 1960s, the development of ‘high-yielding’ plant varieties through conventional breeding, combined with the intensive use of synthetic fertilisers and irrigation infrastructures, was supposed to free farmers
from the biological limits of ‘traditional’ plant varieties and feed the world.
However, farm-level studies and multi-year ethnographic research painted a more modest picture. They revealed that disproportionate financial benefits ended up at the hands of large farm owners who were already well-off, and that the plants being bred at international research centres were not conducive to the landscapes where the majority of small farmers lived. Instead, the
Green Revolution made a few farmers wealthy, and left the majority hungry .
DEFRA’s Chief Scientific Advisor has lauded the Precision Breeding Bill as “a powerful and important tool to help us tackle the challenges of biodiversity and climate change, while feeding a still growing population” . But unless the small farmers at the centre of the food system are
consulted about the appropriate means to farm their landscapes with culturally and ecologically relevant foods, then technologies such as precision breeding may continue to reinforce the same historical inequities that favoured larger farm owners and agriindustrial interests.
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Hitesh is a PhD scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, where he works within the ‘From Collection to Cultivation’ project, funded by the Wellcome Trust. His PhD research aims to develop the history of seed sovereignty and peasant-friendly farming, looking closely at how the activist threads of seed and peasant politics coalesced to form a transnational peasant-led movement for the right to seeds. Prior to his PhD, Hitesh worked as a researcher for the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, where he conducted ethnographic research on the erasure of cultural memory and socioecological landscapes in Nepal as a consequence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He has also worked extensively at the interface of conservation and development, particularly on human-wildlife conflict, the militarisation of protected areas, and energy infrastructures in Nepal, the Balkans, and Central Asia.
Corresponding address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Conflict of interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.