Gene-editing will boost UK crop yields, scientists say

The government unveiled a consultation on using gene editing to modify crops
The government unveiled a consultation on using gene editing to modify crops

Scientists have welcomed Defra's new consultation on gene editing as the technology will lead to increased crop yields and improved resilience to pests and diseases.

Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world, says gene editing technologies will soon be contributing to a more sustainable and productive farming sector.

"We’ve already seen the huge benefits genome editing brings to areas such as medicine – it’s now time to apply the same sort of innovation, together with responsible regulation, to our food production," Director Professor Angela Karp said.

“Humanity faces some grave challenges over the coming decades, and the solutions that genome editing make possible cannot come too soon.”

Scientists at the Hertfordshire institution explain that the benefits to the environment from the technology could include less land being used for farming.

It may also lead to a reduction in farm inputs such as water, fertilisers, and pesticides - as well as a drop in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Defra's 10-week consultation will look at plans to regulate the products of precision breeding techniques in the same way as conventional breeding methods, rather than as GMOs as they are classified under EU law.

Countries such as Australia, Japan, Argentina, the US and Brazil already regulate genome edited agricultural products in this way.

Rothamsted’s Professor Johnathan Napier said: “This consultation sends an important message that the UK’s bioscience sector is open for business and equipped to meet the many challenges facing agriculture using new technology.

“Early benefits of gene editing for agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those we have now.

“Gene editing can also help accelerate the improvement of orphan crops like cassava, millet, cowpea and yams, which are critical to food security in less developed parts of the world.”

The consultation will run for ten weeks from 7 January to 17 March 2021.