Gene editing and other new breeding techniques are being talked about as important new tools for the future and resilience of agriculture.

The various techniques have the potential to alter breeding techniques for agriculture to help replace or reduce the current dependence on artificial inputs.

The potential of these tools was given added impetus in the recent strategy plans for the EU which seek to achieve reduced pesticide and fertiliser usage, as well as other objectives.

These objectives represent areas that could, potentially, be addressed through the use of these new precision breeding techniques in agriculture.

While this is being increasingly recognised, the problem is that all these techniques are effectively prohibited in the EU because they come under GMO legislation, which makes them awkward to research and almost impossible to commercialise.

That said, there is an increasing awareness within the EU that these technologies are very different and that they should be bound by a different legislative framework.

Inception Impact Assessment

Individual member states such as the Netherlands and France have been proactive in suggesting the need for legislation changes to allow and govern these technologies.

Only recently, the EU initiated what it calls an Inception Impact Assessment, which is a process that invites citizens and stakeholders to give their views on the Commission’s understanding of the problems that might be addressed and the potential of the technologies.

The move could also be called a public consultation process and anyone can give a view.

This process ends on 22 October 2021 and voices in favour will be useful to help state the benefit of the techniques.

The consultation process can be accessed by scanning the QR code (right) on your smartphone.

When the process is completed, the Commission is to undertake an impact assessment to assess policy options and their likely impacts.

This process is to evaluate the available evidence base and the feedback received during the consultation process.

GE v GM

Some say that gene editing (GE) is the same thing as what is known as genetic modification (GM).

To some degree this is correct because it involves alteration or manipulation of the genetic code of an organism, plant or animal.

The major difference between the two approaches is that GM involves the introduction of genetic coding from a different species, mainly into plants

But conventional breeding also changes the genetic code of its offspring and humans then select the progeny that best suit their individual requirements.

The major difference between the two approaches is that GM involves the introduction of genetic coding from a different species, mainly into plants.

Examples of this would be the different types of pest resistance introduced into crops such as maize, soya beans, cotton and even oilseed rape.

While this technology significantly reduced pesticide input into these crops, it was also used to introduce different types of herbicide resistance which enabled total herbicides like glyphosate and glufosinate to be used on crops that would otherwise be killed by these actives.

More recently, resistance has been introduced to allow the use of other herbicide actives.

While this technology was never really allowed within the EU, one must be aware that it was hugely important for the expansion of crop production globally, mainly through the expansion of crop area.

Some of the new tools merely utilise a natural mechanism to repair a cell’s genetic coding

If this expansion had not taken place, the world today would have more hunger and famine and today’s global population would be much lower.

Some of the new tools merely utilise a natural mechanism to repair a cell’s genetic coding.

So, in theory, any new traits produced were already present in the genetic coding and they are generated by the switching on or off of individual genes with the help of knowledge generated in recent decades.

However, some level of control is still needed to protect against unintended consequences.

There will (hopefully) be new legislation which will enable the use of GE technology in the EU.

To help prepare for this, a recent webinar series outlined the type of controls that are currently in place in other countries which have already opted to use GE technology.

GE technologies may be useful in enhancing variety resistance to diseases like septoria.

It is important that any new EU regulatory framework is effective internally and harmonised internationally to help prevent barriers to and distortion of international trade.

GE policy also needs to encourage innovation for the benefit of societies worldwide. We have already seen scientists use modern biotechnology to produce the COVID vaccines and the PCR and antigen tests for the identification of this virus.

GE seminar

Recent webinars on GE outlined how these technologies are being regulated in countries which have already opted to adopt them. They were targeted at a UK and Irish audience but over 40 countries listened in.

Presentations were given by speakers from Japan, Canada and Argentina, countries that already have GE regulation.

It was interesting to hear about specific individual traits that are being developed to solve problems and address specific market niches.

All the countries start with the premise that GE will only apply to traits that can be produced by conventional breeding or ones that can happen in nature.

Traits that do not comply with this definition would still be subject to GM legislation.

There were a number of common threads in all presentations. A voluntary notification of each trait is required and most countries have opted to look at the product of GE, rather than the technology itself.

Proof of the absence of “foreign” DNA is required, along with work to identify any unintended changes.

All three countries are educating the public about GE and what is involved.

They acknowledge the need for controls but they largely treat GE as a precision breeding technique that can be used to speed up the delivery of traits that are sought by consumers and producers.

In most instances, the technology is being used in plants initially, but the intention is that it would also be used in animals.

However, some believe that the controls governing the use of GE in animals will be more onerous. The controls also promise quick decisions by regulators.

There were also a number of presentations on some GE projects that are currently in development by commercial companies.

High-gaba tomatoes

Shimpei Sumiyoshi from Sanatech Seed in Japan told us that the company has developed a genome-edited tomato with enhanced gaba content.

Gaba stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid, a type of amino acid that is associated with an enhanced ability to relax and so to help to lower blood pressure in humans and improve sleep patterns. It is to be marketed as Sicilian Rouge High GABA.

Calyxt

Chloe Pavely from Calyxt told us that the company was involved in precision plant breeding across a number of crops and traits to mimic processes that occur in nature. One of these affects specific fatty acid production in soya beans.

Linoleic acid is troublesome in vegetable oils because it needs to be partially hydrogenated to make it stable in storage. That can then lead to the production of trans fats (potentially carcinogenic compounds) when heated.

They use a genetic process to stop the conversion of oleic acid to linoleic acid and that dramatically alters the fatty acid profile of the oil to make it more suitable for repeated use in cooking.

The company is also working on high-fibre wheat, a non-browning trait in mushrooms and enhanced digestibility in alfalfa.

PRRSV resistance

Bruce Whitelaw from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh and Elena Rice from GENUS plc described their joint efforts to solve the problem of PRRSV in pigs. PRRSV, or porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, occurs in pigs of all ages and can result in reproductive impairment, respiratory illness, performance reduction and even death.

They used GE to produce genetic resistance and the process required a lot of monitoring. GENUS hope to have commercial pigs available for breeding in 2023/24.

Pairwise initiatives

Dan Jenkins of Pairwise opened his talk by saying that certain characteristics in foods significantly altered their consumer appeal and consumption. Baby carrots and seedless mandarins are just two examples.

Pairwise is looking to make useful trait changes in a range of foods that are accepted as having benefits for human health.

It is using “Verdi technology” to alter food characteristics to increase their appeal.

Dan said he was working to remove the pungency from the taste of brassica leaves to increase their appeal in salads.

Other traits

The company is also looking at other traits such as thornless berry foliage, black raspberries, year-round production, etc.

Dan explained that it was essential to have the desirable flavour in the fruit to begin with and they would then work to refine the desirable characteristics.

They will purse traits like pitless cherries and plums and seedless grapes, but it is essential to know whether consumers perceive such traits as useful or not to begin with.

UK to free up GE

UK government ministers moved last week to ease rules to allow research on gene-edited crops to proceed in the field. This is seen as paving the way for commercial crop production in England.

Brexit has enabled Britain to break away from restrictive EU rules and its first move is to make research and development easier. However, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need to make their own decisions on this issue.

Defra secretary George Eustice described the relaxation as a move to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided to tackle some of the big challenges around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.

The plan is that researchers need only notify Defra of their intention to grow these crops, removing both the cost and the regulations associated with growing GM crops.

As appears to be the case in other jurisdictions, the changes would apply to gene-edited traits that mimic those which could be achieved by conventional breeding. However, labelling requirements are still to be decided.

In short

  • The EU is making preliminary moves to introduce a legislative framework for gene-edited products.
  • It is essential that this be in harmony with other countries so as not to cause trade issues.
  • The UK government has already moved to free up the evaluation of these technologies.
  • Other countries have chosen to enable the use of GE to produce traits that could be produced by conventional breeding or which can occur in nature.
  • GE still needs legislative controls to govern its use.