The UK Government’s announcement which redefined the rules for using Genetic Engineering (GE) techniques in plant breeding was expected. It was highlighted as a benefit of the regulatory freedoms which would come with leaving the EU and does indeed free UK plant breeders from an EU legislative structure which was simply not designed for some of the GE techniques which plant geneticists have developed in recent years.
What, if anything, does this mean for coffee given the lack of UK, or even EU, production?
I would suggest it matters in at least two areas: Firstly, given the European nature of plant breeding for many mainstream European agricultural crops, it increases the pressure on the EU to reconsider its own position. This is something it had tentatively started to do, although the timescale for doing so is predictably glacial. Nevertheless, the fact that the UK is now acting, rather than just talking about acting, will increase the clamours within Europe about not being left behind.
Secondly, and potentially more important in the short term, it offers the UK plant science, research and breeding communities the opportunity to increase their focus on the use of these technologies with a greater potential to now carry that work all the way through to the point of commercialisation and thereby increase the opportunities for UK science to export its knowledge and expertise around the globe, including coffee-producing countries.
But additionally, and crucial to the longer-term benefit of the coffee industry, it presents a big step forwards in the protection of coffee production in the face of a changing climate and changing production pressures. It offers hope of a fresh assault on coffee’s biggest nemesis – coffee rust; it presents opportunities for improved drought resistance; for greater resilience to temperature change; and for giving us, the coffee consumer, the opportunity to continue enjoying the coffee we like when we like. A panacea for all ills it most certainly is not, but this move by the Government has to be welcomed and the new regulatory structure which GE will now follow respected by all to ensure its safe and beneficial introduction.
Paul Rooke, Executive Director