THE SCOTTISH Government has been accused of letting their “constitutional obsession” get in the way of science, during a fierce debate on new gene editing laws. 

However, Environment Secretary Màiri McAllan hit back at her Tory critics, accusing them of being guided by their own “constitutional obsession”. 

Earlier this month, Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, and George Eustice, the Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, food and rural affairs, wrote to the Scottish minister asking her to back the UK government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

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

Because of Brexit, the government can now pursue its own policy on precision breeding rather than the EU's, which treats gene editing as a category of genetically modified organism (GMO).

Last week, Ms McAllan rejected the UK ministers' pleas, saying Scotland would remain aligned to the regulatory regime in Europe, noting that the position in Brussels may soon change.

The move was praised by environmental campaigners but fiercely criticised by scientists and farmers. 

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

In Holyrood on Tuesday, responding to a topical question, Ms McAllan described the use of genetic technologies as “complex and emotive”. 

The minister said while she was closely following “scientific and other considerations on the decoupling of genetic modification and editing,” the government’s position hadn’t changed. 

Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton said Ms McAllan was missing the point. 

“Yet again she deliberately conflates the two issues, gene editing and GMO, and that is disingenuous and only weakens her untenable position on this.

"The minister would seemingly prefer to wait for the EU to tell them what to do. But surely when their own former Chief Scientific Adviser says that they're out of kilter with scientific evidence, does the minister not agree that she should have a serious rethink on the SNP’s position and stop holding our farmers back?”

Ms McAllan said she was “absolutely up to date on the issues" and "not deliberately conflating GM and gene editing." 

She added: “Although I remind her that she is in parliament, in a country in which gene editing is still part of the definition of genetic modification.”

The minister said she was considering - as Dame Anne had recommended - “all the evidence available.” 

“Some of that will be scientific evidence, some of its economic, some of it will be ethical, and some of it philosophical,” Ms McAllan told MSPs. “Unlike the UK Government, who are hurriedly pursuing this post Brexit deregulation.”

Ms Hamilton said farmers in her Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency were “extremely worried that if this SNP Green Government doesn't give their backing to gene editing, then they will be at a major disadvantage compared with their neighbours just south of the border.”

She added: “And that concern is shared with the [National Farmers Union Scotland], it is shared by the James Hutton Institute, it is shared by the Roslin Institute. 

“Gene editing technology would give our farmers a much needed boost to help drive down food prices, help our food security issues right now, and support climate change goals.

"I think the minister needs to look at what her priorities are here. Are they constitutional obsessions and grievances? Will she listen to the experts and work with UK positive change?”

Ms McAllan said it was the Tory’s “constitutional obsession and her colleague's desire for unity at all costs, which is the problem here.”

She pointed towards a joint statement, backed by groups including the RSPCA, Friends of the Earth, Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming among others, which said the “significant change in the law” would have “huge implications for farming, food, animal welfare, the environment, the UK is internal markets and its trading relationships with key global markets.”

Ms McAllan said the real threat to Scotland's farmers was “an ideological Brexit, the hardest possible Brexit pursued during the second wave of a deadly virus, made worse by trade agreements which undermine standards and welfare and the environment and undermine farmers’ livelihoods.”

The row looks set to be one of the main talking points at this week's Royal Highland Show. 

During the question, the minister said she had "no doubt" that the topic would come up when she meets with the NFU during the four-day event on the outskirts of Edinburgh.