The crop biotechnology sector offers huge benefits for farmers, the economy and the environment, say experts
Rapid advances made by the crop biotechnology sector offer huge benefits for farmers, the economy and the environment, say plant breeders.
New breeding technologies – including using molecular methods to edit or alter genes – promise higher yields, health benefits for consumers and climate change mitigation, they argue.
Supporters say it is important to highlight these broader benefits so new breeding techniques are more readily accepted by regulators – as well as by as the general public.
Prospects for improving plant breeding using technologies such as gene editing were recently discussed by more than 50 scientists and growers.
Organised by the British Crop Production Council, the seminar at the Farmers Club in London set out to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the technology.
Increasingly cost-effective gene-editing techniques mean agriculture is in the middle of a DNA revolution, said John Innes Centre scientist Cristobal Uauy.
Big yield increases are possible using targeted editing techniques such as Crispr-Cas9 – which enables genes to be changed using “molecular scissors” to cut DNA, he said. He explained that it is important not to overhype [the technology] and there is a long way to go to know which genes to target.
Traditional breeding should still continue – it is not going to disappear – but this is a very important tool that is needed to incorporate for breeders to use, he said.
Agricultural economist Graham Brookes said biotechnology had already seen a 671,000t reduction in the amount of pesticides applied globally since 1996.
New breeding techniques had increased global food and fibre production by 659m tonnes – and seen a reduction of 27.1m tonnes in carbon emissions from agriculture, he added.
Alison Bentley, head of genetics and breeding at Niab, said the industry faced a big regulatory hurdle before farmers were allowed to grow gene-edited crops.
It is a year since the European Court of Justice ruled that products from gene-editing techniques should be considered genetically modified organisms – and restricted accordingly. This is despite the fact that gene editing involves altering plants by slicing genes to remove undesirable traits, rather than inserting foreign DNA.
Dr Bentley said that as an industry, they need to come together to develop the narrative around the potential benefit and the benefits for the economy, the environment and for society as a whole. Those benefits included celiac-safe wheat and other “exciting products” that aren’t currently available on the market.
Karen Holt, senior regulatory affairs manager for biotech company Syngenta, said good regulation should be transparent and proportionate to any perceived risk.
Gene-edited crops are indistinguishable from conventionally bred plants, she added, which begged the question why they need to be regulated so tightly.