As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Is UK farming set for a new era of plant breeding?
by Arable Farming Feb 2021 Issue
Defra’s consultation on gene editing has been hailed ‘potentially the most significant policy breakthrough in plant breeding for more than two decades’, but what could the technology really offer the arable sector? Alice Dyer reports.
Biotechnologists across the land rejoiced last month following the announcement that Defra has taken the first steps to ditch an EU-enforced ban on gene editing (GE), with the launch of a Government consultation on the future of the technology in England.
Farming organisations largely welcomed the news, which, if green lighted, would align the industry with global counterparts including Australia, Japan and Argentina, who already use GE.
There was also, however, considerable opposition to the proposals voiced by organisations and individuals with concerns over the technology.
Defra chief scientific adviser Prof Gideon Henderson puts across a convincing argument, saying gene editing has the potential to increase productivity, produce more resilient crops, reduce pesticide use and provide society with food offering previously unobtainable health benefits.
But key to all of this is that crops produced in this way, could have also been bred naturally.
He says: “The advent of GE allows us to mimic the natural breeding process but do so in a way that is safe and effective, but much more quickly.” Rothamsted Research is one of the UK’s plant science centres which has been using GE as a standard tool in its labs for a number of years, as well as conducting field trials of gene edited crops since 2018.
Prof Johnathan Napier, flagship leader at Rothamsted Research, believes some of the early benefits of GE for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds containing heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes which are even healthier than those we have now.
He says: “Conventional plant breeding can get a new variety onto the National List in something like 12 years.
It still will not happen overnight, but should restrictions on GE change, it could significantly reduce that time by several years.”
One of Rothamsted’s projects includes the development of wheat with lower levels of the carcinogen, acrylamide.
Gene editing has been used to cut the amino acid asparagine in wheat, in order to reduce the levels of acrylamide in cooked foodstuffs produced from the grain.
However, while those in favour of gene editing are keen to point to the benefits, a number of agri-environmental organisations say the technology risks diverting vital investment and attention from farmer-driven action and research into agroecology.
Louise Payton, policy officer at the Soil Association, believes Defra’s claim that the technology can be used to mimic DNA changes in natural breeding is ‘entirely untested’.
She says: “The science behind this consultation is not as clear-cut as it is being presented to be, which risks misleading citizens and farmers.
We have serious concerns that gene editing is being presented as a silver bullet when it can only be a sticking plaster.”
Start-ups paving the way
Stakeholders have voiced concern over gene editing giving big business more control over food supply, but Defra argues much of the world’s top research into GE has been led by pioneering small- and medium-sized businesses.
According to a report by market analyst IHS Markit in 2020, plant breeding and food ingredient start-ups and small companies formed the largest segment of the GE market.
However, seed industry giants including Bayer, BASF, Corteva and Syngenta, constituted the second largest market segment, with Corteva and BASF listed in the top five companies with the largest number of activities in the GE space.
Dr Phil Howell, head of cereals pre-breeding at NIAB, believes the technology offers opportunities for both sectors.
“As with all new technologies, [GE technology] is disruptive and there’s a substantial presence of start-ups, but the big players are also involved.
There are some parallels with the farming industry here – small companies doing lots of interesting, risky things and sometimes the big companies step in with commercialisation.
“Having said that, because [GE] is cheaper, it means more targets are in range, so the niches are sometimes too small for the big companies to be interested in.
They become affordable for the small companies to do the commercialisation as well.”
Although GM crops have been grown in the US for a number of years, GE technology is still relatively new.
In 2019 seven applications for gene edited crops were submitted, rising to 70 in 2020, highlighting the speed of growth of the technology.
Minnesota-based plant technology company Calyxt launched the US’ first commercially-approved gene edited food in 2019.
The high oleic soybean oil contains around 80% oleic acid and up to 20% less saturated fat and at the end of December 2020, Calyxt contracted to sell all 2020 grain production of the soybean to ADM.
The oil has up to three times the fry life and extended shelf life compared to commodity oils, according to Calyxt.
In 2022, the company is planning to commercially plant GE wheat which has three times more dietary fibre, providing up to 100% of the recommended daily fibre requirement, hemp with marketable yield in 2023, cold-tolerant oat crops by 2026 and pulses with improved protein profiles and flavour the year after.
As well as this, the company is seeking to license traits it has developed to companies with commercialisation expertise and out-license its patented breeding technology.
Another US start-up, Benson Hill, has used GE technology to create the Ultra High-Protein soybean, which it says has up to 50% higher protein than current varieties.
With more than 90% of the country’s soybeans being GM, interestingly, the new variety is being contracted out to growers in the US for a premium because it is marketed as a non-GM crop.
Dr Howell says: “It’s lower yielding but the protein is so high they claim it gives more protein per hectare.
This reduces processing costs, energy and water usage for making high protein concentrates.
“They’ve also been doing fundamental research.
They’ve tied up the [intellectual property] for a new class of enzymes that they say is even more precise and that will give even cleaner CRISPR.” Meanwhile, at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, the ‘healthy heart’ tomato was given government approval in December.
The fruit features five times the normal amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure, thanks to tweaks to genes that normally limit GABA production.
Sanatech, a start-up derived from the university, plans to offer seedlings for home gardens, followed by seed sales to large-scale producers this year.
Safeguarding access to markets
While more than threequarters of UK farmers have shown a desire to grow gene edited crops, according to a 2019 Farmers Guardian survey, there is wariness over compromising access to markets.
Norfolk arable farmer Kit Papworth says the consultation is hugely positive, but only if the consumer is prepared to buy food produced from GE crops.
He says: “We’ve got to start with the marketplace.
There is no point in anyone legislating for it [GE], or us growing it, until someone is prepared to buy it.
Assuming there is a marketplace for it, then this has so much potential for environmental good and [human] health.” A consumer survey commissioned by AHDB and YouGov in August 2020 showed 22% of consumers were very concerned about GM crops.
However, glyphosate in food, pollution of the water supply and antibiotic usage were of bigger concern.
Top of the agenda was the use of plastics in product packaging, with almost half of consumers very concerned, says Dr Martin Grantley-Smith, strategy director for AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds.
“When consumers were asked what aspect of GM is concerning, 77% said personal health, yet that is not an area that there has been of generally much concern among scientists.
Most of their concern is about the movement of germplasms from the product into the environment.”
While the study did not differentiate between GM and GE, Dr Grantley-Smith believes a clear definition of the two technologies will reduce consumer apprehension.
“We’ve got an opportunity to lay the groundwork before people get too concerned.
“However, farmers have to grow what the market can stand.
The issue will be how well set up an individual consumer is to have choice.
There will always be people who can afford and want Safeguarding access to markets to have products produced in a particular way, such as organic, but there are a large number of people who don’t have the time, inclination or money to make that choice.
What’s important is that those people are guaranteed a safe, healthy supply of food products.
“GE products will possibly be cheaper and more readily available and while there may be concerns about the environment in a negative way, there will also be people who see the positive impact of GE on the environment as well.”
No quick fix
Sugar beet is well placed to benefit from new breeding techniques and the gene editing consultation is an important step towards sustainable plant protection solutions for the crop, says the British Beet Research Organisation’s head of science Prof Mark Stevens.
Currently, finding a genetic solution to yield-robbing virus yellows using conventional breeding is difficult because there are three different viruses responsible for the disease.
“Trying to identify resistant genes in wild relatives, which can then be bred in [to conventional varieties] is a slow, long-winded process.
“The beauty of a GE-targeted approach is that it is a chance to speed that process up.
We know a lot more these days about the sugar beet genome and it is targeted, specific plant breeding that potentially provides a future solution to virus yellows,” says Prof Stevens.
Drought tolerance, improved nitrogen use efficiency and resistance to other pests and diseases are all traits that could be developed with gene editing.
But there is not currently a variety ‘on the shelf’, Prof Stevens adds, and although gene editing has the potential to speed up the breeding process, it will still take a number of years for any new variety to reach the market.
“There will be a lot of science that needs to be done, appropriate trials and then for the trait to be bred into a lead variety. It would not be a quick fix.
There is a lot of background work that needs to be done first.” NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw warns gene editing technology should not be considered a silver bullet, but it will be ‘absolutely critical’ in helping the UK achieve its net zero targets, he suggests.
Keeping in line with global counterparts
Current EU legislation requires that all GE organisms fall into the same category as genetic modification (GM), but Defra has argued organisms produced by GE or other genetic technologies should not be regulated this way if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.
However, there are hints of a review to the legislation, with the European Commission currently undertaking a study of novel genomic techniques due to be published in April.
In January, France’s agriculture minister said he opposed the EU’s current stance and called for new breeding techniques not to be regulated as GMOs.
Countries including the USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Australia and Japan have adopted a product-based legislative approach to GE crops.
This means that regardless of whether a transgene was part of the pipeline, if the final product is transgene-free and carries a modification which is indistinguishable from a naturally-occurring mutation, it cannot be classed as GM.
Countries currently having similar discussions to the UK around GE policy include Norway, Bangladesh, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria and Kenya.