Gene editing can play major role in food production

Recognition of the important role played by crop genetics in delivering the productivity, efficiency and gains in nutritional quality needed to support a more resilient food system has been welcomed by UK crop breeders.

Dr Tina Barsby OBE
Dr Tina Barsby OBE

With recent reports, including last week’s National Food Strategy, highlighting the need to invest in the latest science, research institutes and crop breeding companies yesterday issued a clarion call to the Government to green-light the use of new breeding techniques such as gene editing to help realise the potential to increase crop yields by up to 30%.

The call was backed by organisations involved in the sector – including the John Innes Centre, Rothamsted Research, The Sainsbury Laboratory, NIAB and the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), along with leading plant scientists at Britain’s top universities.

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Their plea included the provision of a proportionate and enabling regulatory framework for genetic innovation, alongside a more coherent R&D strategy for crop genetic improvement which would help ensure that new genetic discoveries were translated into new crops and products of value to UK farmers and consumers.

They also claimed such an approach could help provide alternative sources of plant protein, along with improved production of fruit and vegetables.

A report produced earlier in the year by Professor Jane Langdale CBE FRS, University of Oxford, reached the same conclusions in relation to the need for a more enabling regulatory framework and a joined up R&D ‘pipeline’ for crop genetic innovation. She said this would give organisations the confidence to invest in long-term breeding programmes, as she claimed the current system wasn’t working and opportunities to exploit major advances in the understanding of plant science were being lost.

And the recent Dagupta report recognised that while food production was the most significant driver of biodiversity loss, science-based innovation - through measures such as precision agriculture, integrated pest management and molecular breeding techniques -would help reduce this impact - and that innovation would also have positive economic impact, including the creation of jobs.

The chief executive of NIAB Dr Tina Barsby OBE, who last year brought together a group of leading scientists to encourage the Government to bring the rules around gene editing into line with other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Australia and the US, said the outcome of the Defra public consultation on gene editing was eagerly awaited by all those involved in crop innovation:

“A positive outcome to the consultation will send an important signal that Britain is set on a more pro-innovation trajectory outside the EU. It will boost prospects for inward investment and international research collaboration given the UK’s strengths in plant science.”

“In terms of breeding objectives, there are virtually limitless possibilities to accelerate the development of a more productive and sustainable food system, with crops more resistant to diseases, environmental conditions and climate change effects, foods with improved nutritional qualities, and reduced need for agricultural inputs such as pesticides,” said Dr Barsby.

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