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UK plant breeders say farmers will benefit from government plans allowing gene editing techniques to develop new crop varieties.

Higher yields and better resilience promised

UK plant breeders say farmers will benefit from government plans allowing gene editing techniques to develop new crop varieties.

Last month’s Queen Speech included plans to bring forward new primary legislation enabling breeders to use genetic techniques where the resulting plants could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding methods.

Rapid results

NIAB chief executive Mario Caccamo said the announcement was an important step towards more science-based regulation of gene editing technologies. It had the potential to boost prospects for UK plant breeders and agriculture, he added.

Professor Caccamo said: “The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill announced today will provide a more straightforward route to market for seeds and crops developed using advanced breeding technologies such as gene editing.”

Precision breeding techniques such as CRISPR/Cas-9 enable scientists to cut and paste DNA with extreme precision and accuracy – so they can edit, insert and delete genes to obtain desirable traits faster than conventional breeding.

“Innovation in plant breeding will be the single most important factor in helping global food supplies keep pace with a growing world population, in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources of land, water, energy and biodiversity,” said Prof Caccamo.

“The conflict in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief the precarious balance which exists between global food supply and demand, and the need to explore every option to increase food production sustainably.”

The go-ahead for gene-editing would help accelerate the development of higher-yielding crops more resilient to pests and diseases, environmental conditions and climate change. It would also reduce the need for pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

Prof Caccamo said NIAB was keen to explore the potential for gene editing to transform the performance of leguminous crops such as faba beans and soybeans under UK growing conditions.

“These are neglected crops in terms of breeding, yet the opportunities they offer – as nitrogen-fixing sources of home-grown, plant-based protein for human and livestock consumption – are hugely significant.”

Prof Caccamo said gene-editing could also help improve fungal disease resistance in wheat, flowering time variation in strawberry plants, root architecture traits in durum wheat, and enhanced nutrient and water use efficiency traits in cereals.

‘Significant step’

A spokesperson for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council – which represents BASF, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta – said the move was a significant step towards using science to solve local and global food problems 

“It is positive to see the UK take the opportunity to re-join the mainstream of global agricultural innovation and adopt the science-based regulatory approaches taken by countries like Canada and Australia.

Innovations like gene editing have the potential to help tackle climate change, food insecurity and enable Britain’s farming sector to thrive – all while maintaining high levels of environmental and consumer safety.

“In light of a rising cost of living and concerns around our future food security, agricultural technologies have an important part to play in ensuring farmers can continue to produce nutritious, sustainable food to feed an ever-growing population.”