Dear George and Alister,
Thank you for your letter of 24 May to the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands concerning the UK Government’s Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill. I am responding as the relevant issues fall within my own portfolio responsibilities as Minister for Environment and Land Reform.
I should begin by expressing my disappointment at the timing of your letter regarding the Bill, with your invitation for Scotland to join in the legislation coming the day before the Bill was introduced in the UK Parliament. Despite repeated earlier requests from the Scottish Government and other Devolved Administrations, a draft of the Bill was provided only on the afternoon before it was introduced, after your letter inviting us to participate in the Bill had already been shared with the media. This is unacceptable.
My officials continue to scrutinise the details of this legislation. While the intended scope of the Bill may be England-only, the Bill documentation itself is clear that it will have significant impacts on areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I note in particular that the Impact Assessment for the Bill states that “whilst this legislative change will only take effect in England, the mutual recognition element of the United Kingdom Internal Market (UKIM) Act means that products entering the market in England would also be marketable in both Scotland and Wales.” Such an outcome is unacceptable. The Scottish Government remains wholly opposed to the imposition of the Internal Market Act, and will not accept any constraint on the exercise of its devolved powers to set standards within devolved policy areas.
Now that the Bill has been introduced, I understand Defra officials have suggested they discuss the UK Government’s plans to diverge from the common UK-wide GM regulatory regimes, through various relevant Common Frameworks. Any discussions of this nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the Bill to enable consideration of potential policy divergence. The fact that they have not is deeply regrettable – and, again, unacceptable.
We have been clear that we do not presently intend to amend the GM regulatory regime in Scotland to remove categories of products which are currently regulated as GMOs. The views of stakeholders in Scotland will be central to decision-making in this devolved area of responsibility (as is our pursuit of the highest environmental standards more generally) and this encompasses views and evidence from the scientific community, views from across the spectrum of industry interests and, crucially, the views of consumers and the public as a whole.
The use of genetic technologies is a complex and emotive area, and it is abundantly clear that there are issues that need to be addressed if their use in our food system is to have the confidence of the public in Scotland and across the UK as a whole. As your Impact Assessment to the Bill acknowledges, the market for precision-bred products “ultimately depends on prevailing consumer attitudes to products which contain genetically engineered material”, and “the public’s acceptance of GE and similar products remains an area of uncertainty.” Your own consultation last year rejected the changes to the regulation of GM that you are now pursuing. Consumer information and choice is key. I am therefore extremely concerned that the UK Government’s preferred option, as set out in the Bill documentation, will not require labelling of precision-bred products. Not only does this obstruct the enforcement of our devolved powers to regulate produce covered by the GM crops, animals and food and feed regimes in Scotland, but I am firmly of the view that the public have a right to know what they are consuming.
Furthermore, there are serious considerations around trade, including with our biggest trading partner the European Union. In Scotland, we will be taking careful note of the European Commission’s ongoing consideration of the issues involved, including the public consultation currently being conducted by the Commission. As your Impact Assessment for the Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill acknowledges, removing gene-edited products from England’s GM regulatory regime would mean divergence from the EU approach and as such could have implications for compliance costs and future trade. The Impact Assessment also raises the prospect that new trade barriers could come in the form of checks and certification requirements on UK food exports entering the EU’s single market. It states that this would not only affect products exported to the EU which contain precision-bred plant material, but also those in the same product categories which do not.
The UK Government’s refusal to commit to dynamic alignment with the EU has already led to very significant trade impacts for Scottish businesses. I have written to UK Ministers on numerous occasions regarding the loss to the Scottish seed potato industry of the EU export market, and yet no progress has been made by the UK Government in re-establishing that trade. I see no reason to create further regulatory divergence on the regulation of GMOs, when the European Commission is in the process of conducting its own consultation on the issues. That instead presents a clear opportunity for dialogue with our key partners to ensure a co-ordinated approach to GM regulation and avoid further unnecessary barriers to trade, and to properly identify and address stakeholder concerns.
If the UK Government is determined to press ahead with this legislation, it must take steps to ensure that its revisions to the definition of a GMO do not force products on Scotland which do not meet standards here without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
We look forward to your full co-operation as we seek to uphold devolution in this regard.
I am copying this letter to my counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland for their information.
T: 0300 244 4000
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