Speaking in Cambridge on 30 June, NIAB chairman Jim Godfrey said the collateral damage of the Brexit talks was becoming a reality after NIAB had recently been notified that future EU variety testing contracts commissioned directly by the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO), and which might last beyond the envisaged Brexit date of 30 March 2019, would no longer be awarded to the UK.
He explained that this ‘shock’ decision would affect work carried out by NIAB on DUS testing of ornamental crop species - valued at around £600k per year.
"The timing of this notification – without any prior consultation - came as a shock, not only because the UK is and remains a full EU member until the confirmed date of Brexit, but perhaps more significantly because NIAB is the only entrusted examination centre within the EU for 678 of the 864
ornamental species involved."
The decision also presents a "major headache" for EU plant breeding companies and for CPVO in identifying alternative testing centres with the same level of scientific expertise, testing facilities and reference material required.
"Despite attempts by European plant breeding organisations to press for some flexibility in the decision which would allow NIAB to continue this work and enable normal variety testing services to be maintained, the EU Commission’s current position risks impacting NIAB and the UK science base as well as damaging the commercial interests of EU plant breeders. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face."
Godfrey added that it was precisely because NIAB occupied such a unique space in variety testing, with unrivalled staff expertise and extensive reference collections built up over many years, that major investment in upgrading this capability had been undertaken at the organisation’s Cambridge headquarters in recent years.
"NIAB is facing the collateral damage of the politics behind the Brexit negotiations. Because of the two-year timescales for testing many of the species involved, we are perhaps an early warning signal of the Commission’s hardline negotiating tactics and the potential wider implications for our sector.
"If the UK Government is serious about its commitment to safeguarding innovation and maintaining the UK science base it must step in to support NIAB in this case."
But despite this setback, Godfrey said leaving the EU also presented exciting opportunities for the UK agri-tech sector, especially in crop science.
"There are major opportunities for UK crop science of more evidence-based and proportionate regulation of innovative technologies such as GM and particularly the new generation of gene editing techniques. The politicisation of these issues at EU level has acted like a drag anchor on EU investment and innovation, and I am confident that post-Brexit the UK will be well-placed to cement its position as an international centre of crop science expertise, supporting improved UK crop production, attracting inward investment and developing an export market for technological solutions.
"These are extremely exciting times for NIAB. Our contribution to translational crop science and innovation is vibrant and expanding thanks to a rapid period of growth which has significantly strengthened our ability to support improved crop production in the UK and internationally."
"Over the past 10 years NIAB has trebled in size with the merging of TAG, CUF and EMR and significant investment in additional research capabilities such as pre-breeding and data science. Day by day the benefits this brings in terms of economies of scale, complementary scientific knowledge and skills, and the ability to explore exciting new areas of research and innovation are becoming more apparent."