Plans to strengthen governance of gene editing

Gene editing may transform agri-food systems if it can be separated from the legislation that governs GMOs
Gene editing may transform agri-food systems if it can be separated from the legislation that governs GMOs

Future regulation of genetic technologies could support the rapid and safe introduction of beneficial new crop varieties, a new report has suggested.

Genetic innovation may create opportunities to transform agri-food systems through nutritionally healthier crop varieties that have greater disease resistance, the Regulatory Horizons Council said.

The expert committee's report, which issued recommendations to government, suggested that genetic changes could help chemical use and greenhouse gas emissions fall.

This in turn would improve climate resilience and contribute to more sustainable agricultural systems, the Council's report explained.

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), the representative body for the UK plant breeding industry, welcomed the report.

"This report recognises the benefits of genetic technologies and supports the proposals set out in the recent Defra consultation to take simple gene edited crop varieties – which could have occurred in nature or through conventional plant breeding – out of the scope of existing genetically modified organism (GMO) regulation," BSPB CEO, Samantha Brooke said.

"We are now anticipating an announcement from Defra detailing how this research and innovation can progress in the future.”

However, alongside a commitment to better regulation, Ms Brooke said that plant breeders had concerns about the hiatus in research funding between early-stage genetic research and its application in commercial breeding programmes.

“This gap was first identified 17 years ago in a BBSRC review of crop science and was backed up earlier this year by a UKRI review published by professor Jane Langdale of the University of Oxford," she said.

"It shows that a fragmented research and development pipeline in plant genetics still remains a significant barrier to innovation, and major opportunities to exploit advances in our understanding of plant science are being lost.”

The contribution of plant breeding was highlighted earlier this year in a May 2021 study by HFFA Research GmbH which concluded that, since 2000, improved varieties have accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops.

Without plant breeding over the past 20 years, the study found that crop yields would be 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed in other parts of the world to meet the UK’s food needs.

The study said this would place additional pressure on scarce global resources, causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions.