Plant breeding seminar 2019

New genetic techniques offer much to consumers, processors, the environment and farmers – but will the public accept them? Such were the considerations at the BCPC/Farmers Club seminar Profiting from New Breeding Techniques.

Whatever the final ramifications of Brexit UK farming’s ability to remain viable will very largely hinge around how well it can adapt to change. But will it be able to use the best practices and new technologies it needs to be productive, competitive and profitable?

A prime example is new plant breeding technologies. They offer great potential to UK farmers, the economy and the environment. But without a change in regulation and R&D investment farmers will be unable to reap the benefits.

Setting the scene seminar chairman Bill Clark, Technical Director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, noted that since NIAB’s formation 100 years ago average wheat yields had risen from 2t/ha to over 8t/ha, much of that thanks to plant breeding.

But despite Recommended List trials showing the potential was still rising, up 0.5% a year from Brigadier in 1989 to RGT Gravity’s 11.5t/ha, the past 10-15 years had seen on-farm yields plateau. Even if the full potential of new varieties could be realised it would be insufficient to meet an estimated 50% growth in global food demand by 2030, whilst protecting the environment and coping with climate change.

Economic perspective

Giving an economist’s perspective Graham Brookes, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics noted genetic modification had already delivered massive benefits globally. In the 20 years to 2016 it cut pesticide use by 8.2%, equivalent to 671 million kilogrammes of pesticide, which in turn reduced environmental impacts by 18.4%. At the same time it boosted farm incomes by $186bn, produced an extra 659 million tonnes of food, feed and fibre and cut carbon emissions by 27.1bn kg of CO2.

Meanwhile, Europe accounted for less than 0.5% of GM cropping, yet it imported the equivalent of more than 35 million tonnes of GM produce a year. The EU’s dysfunctional GM regulatory system meant commercial research had plummeted. Twenty years ago the UK had over 480 full-time staff equivalents and a GM R&D budget of £45-50m/year – that was now 10 FTEs and £1.25m.

The UK had foregone production, environmental and consumer benefits estimated at £1bn up to 2006 and probably £400m/year since then, he said. Faster to market and lower cost new breeding technologies, including gene editing, had the potential to reboot the UK plant breeding sector, with smaller enterprises able to get involved, provided regulations permitted, be the UK inside or outside the EU.

Farmer’s view

Tom Bradshaw, Essex farmer and NFU Crops Board Chairman, highlighted the iniquity of GM commodities setting global base prices, against which UK farmers had to compete “with one hand tied behind our backs”.

Indeed, with the current losses of crop protection products the greatest challenge was for UK farmers was to sustain yields, never mind raise them. The neonicotiniod ban, which hit yields, raised pesticide use and increased risk, meant he no longer grew oilseed rape, cutting a key flowering crop from his rotation. Produce imported from countries working to lower standards effectively exported environmental impacts overseas. “Such hypocrisies are absolutely nuts if we want a thriving UK agricultural economy.”

With climate change a major Defra policy driver the need for new technologies was greater than ever, and NBTs could help, he said. But no regulator would approve them until the public could see a benefit. More focus on environmental benefits, including wider rotations, with more flowering crops to support bees, with which the public were mesmerised, was a prime opportunity.

Alison Bentley, Director of Genetics and Breeding at NIAB, said accelerated plant breeding could help considerably, but that with a genome three times bigger than a human’s “it’s a genetic monster.”

Even so, NBTs, including gene-editing techniques like CRISPR, ZFN and TALENS could all help, alongside new approaches to drawing genetic variation from wild relatives, faster cycling through generations and changing the way wheat hybrids function to release more hybrid vigour. 

But varietal selection, through the Recommended List system would need to better reflect changing demands. Suggestions that the UK climate could mirror Barcelona’s within 30 years was a case in point, as was the scope to create very specific nutritionally functional varieties.

Regulatory issues

Karen Holt, Senior regulatory Affairs Manager at Syngenta said the UK’s post-Brexit regulatory framework needed to shift from the EU model, which was unpredictable, non-transparent and unrelated to policy to one which was predictable, transparent and policy-led.

She condemned the European Court of Justice’s 2018 ruling that all biotech varieties should be subject to GM regulation. Varieties produced using NBTs, including gene editing, should be subject to standard food and environmental regulation, as for any other new variety. Only if foreign genes were added should it be seen as similar to GM, she asserted.

Many other regulators were already seeing it that way, including the USA, Brazil and Argentina. The latter had seen the approach stimulate investment by SME businesses, which outnumbered multinationals 9 to 1 in successful applications. 

Significantly, NBTs, especially gene editing, were undetectable in the food chain, unlike GM produce. That could create significant challenges for a paper trail of compliance, and maybe risk significant trade distortions, particularly if the precautionary principle persisted in the EU. She acknowledged that the European Commission was more amenable to gene editing than GM, but felt it could still be up to 10 years before any new regulatory system is in place in the UK.

Until then, it seems, UK farming should expect little from new breeding technologies, while the rest of the world reaps colossal benefits. No level playing field here then.


Now the science! We’re in a DNA revolution that will transform plant breeding, explained Cristobal Uauy, Project Leader in Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre. From a cost of £100m to sequence a human genome in 2001 to under £1000 today the rate of progress was phenomenal. Wheat was now fully sequenced, generating a huge amount of data from which to construct new varieties. “But be careful with the over-hype”, he insisted.

“We know the location of every gene in wheat, now we need to know what they do.” He likened the genome to 3.1 million sheets of A4 paper printed with the GACT base sequence in a 9-point font – smaller than the type in this Journal. Stacked together that would rise as high as the top of London’s Shard.

From that stack an individual letter had to be detected and edited. CRISPR technology effectively provided the ‘Google search box’ to find that base, and Cas9 then provided the ‘scissors’ to snip it out. As the cell repaired the cut, an error could occur, creating the variation that could bring big benefits, in an identical way to the random mutations that happen in nature all the time.

By repeating the process in wheat’s three gene duplicates effects could be tripled, potentially boosting crop benefits very significantly. Current varieties could be enhanced by adding a single new trait, whilst retaining everything else that was good about the variety.

Such technologies were now being used in countries all around the world, with agri-food patents accelerating very fast, including Corteva’s low gluten breadmaking wheat and higher fibre wheat in the US. He felt the technology should be linked to the undoubted upsides of cancer and leukaemia cures when talking to the public. 

Club Events

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