ALISTER Jack is to call on Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee to probe the Scottish Government’s rejection of new gene-editing legislation.

Last week, environment secretary Màiri McAllan said Scotland would not adopt the reforms to regulations proposed in the UK government’s proposed Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

Mr Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland and George Eustice, the Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, food and rural affairs, had asked the minister to consider backing the new law so that the relatively new technology could be used on both sides of the border.

They said the technology could help"tackle the challenges of our age.”

However, Ms McAllan reiterated that the Scottish Government’s position on gene editing is to stay aligned with the EU's regulatory regime, which, effectively, means gene editing is classified as a category of genetically modified organism (GMO).

Over the weekend, former Scottish Government chief scientist, Dame Anne Glover, said the difference had more to do with politics than science. 

She told the Sunday Times: “The widely agreed scientific consensus is that gene-editing technology is safe and that it could be very helpful in generating new crop varieties that are resistant to environmental change as well as less reliant on fossil fuel-based inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.”

She added: “The difference in approach between the UK and Scottish government seems to be a political one, with the Scottish government wishing to remain aligned to regulation in the EU.”

Mr Jack, who is giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee this afternoon, will use his opening remarks to ask MPs to “investigate the benefits for Scotland of gene editing technology.” 

He is expected to say the two governments can “really make a difference as we seek to strengthen our food security, tackle climate change and bring down food prices.” 

“To be clear, gene editing is not genetic modification. It is using science to speed up what farmers have done for generations - breeding new strains of crops that are more disease and drought resistant.

“And with bodies like the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, we are world leaders in this field.

“Scotland’s farmers and the NFUS have been vocal in their support. They do not want to be left behind. 

“Last month, George Eustice and I wrote to the Scottish Government offering to broaden our Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill to cover Scotland. We remain hopeful they will agree.

“And if members feel a formal committee inquiry would contribute to the public debate, we would be very happy to engage with you.”

Meanwhile, the SNP's MSP Jim Fairlie, who is a farmer, said he agreed with Ms McAllan on EU alignment. 

“Once you go down that road there is no coming back, so the precautionary principle should apply until we see how things develop.

“I know the EU are doing their own appraisal at the moment and that is welcome because there is a clear understanding that gene editing and genetically modified are two different things and the ongoing research will give us the answers we need, not just to protect human and animal health, and the environment, but also - as importantly - the world class reputation we in Scotland have for our food and drink sector.  

“The public perception of what we produce is vitally important and if we make a mistake and damage that reputation and perception, it could be catastrophic for our fabulous farming industry. “

Last week, Martin Kennedy, the president of NFU Scotland, told The Herald he was disappointed by the decision.

He said precision breeding techniques had “considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, nutrition, agriculture, biodiversity and climate change and build on the significant amount of work that Scottish farmers and crofters are already undertaking to establish more sustainable and resilient farming systems.”

The UK government’s new legislation was welcomed by Professor Lesley Torrance, the Director of Science at the James Hutton Institute.

She said crops derived through precision breeding techniques such as gene editing could also be “derived by traditional breeding and are thus indistinguishable from crops bred conventionally”.

Prof Torrance added: “Understanding how traits are controlled in crops is crucial to addressing the very real threats posed to our future food security: we need to develop crops quickly which can adapt and are resistant to climate change and pests and whose cultivation is more environmentally friendly.

“The application of precision breeding research is already happening in some countries which may result in crops which are easier to grow, more climate positive, require less use of biocides and fertiliser and potentially more economically viable. 

"It will be up to the consumer to weigh up the merit of these different approaches and we need to do the science and provide the evidence that helps with those decisions”.