Gene-editing Bill: Biotech isn’t a “silver bullet” but will boost climate-friendly food and nutrition
24 Mar 2023 --- The Genetic Technology Bill (Precision Breeding) has been given Royal Assent in England which brings in a new law that will help develop foods with increased nutritional value, maximized flavor and longer shelf life.
Other benefits include improved animal health and welfare, increasing crops’ resilience to extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and helping farmers tackle climate change and aid biodiversity.
Altering the DNA of foods will allow scientists to create crops more resilient against disease and alter plants to remove undesired traits (such as high levels of acrylamide in wheat) and reduce dependence on pesticides.
“We must use technologies such as gene-editing if we are to meaningfully tackle the complex challenges of climate change, food security and disease. The Precision Breeding Bill will allow our scientists to work more closely with food producers to address these complex issues and at the same time capitalize on the UK’s world-leading research expertise in these areas,” says Professor Graham Moore, director of the John Innes Centre.
The new law will only allow the gene-editing of crop foods and not of farm animals, which will require further legislative action in the country to be legalized. Furthermore, commercial use of gene-editing will only be allowed in England and not in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland.
Improving everyday foods
Moore explains that “scientists use gene-editing to improve the crops we eat every day, including wheat, cabbage, tomatoes and peas.”
“Early benefits of gene-editing for UK 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,” explains Prof Johnathan Napier, researcher of plant sciences at Rothamsted Research.
“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,” he continues.
With the Ukraine war and wheat prices skyrocketing, cassava and yams have gained importance in some food-insecure countries, which are scrambling for alternatives.
Unbound by EU rules
Brexit has allowed the UK to implement its own legislation on modified foods without having to navigate burdensome EU regulations.
Under the law provisions, the streamlined regulatory system will remove plants produced through precision breeding technologies from regulatory requirements applicable to GMOs. However, there will be a limit in that the law only allows genetic changes that could have been produced either naturally or through seed crossbreeding.
Meanwhile, in the US, where gene-editing is allowed – and the USDA has a new streamlined genetically modified approval process – Elo Life Systems, a biotech company targeting food sustainability, is tapping into gene-editing to save Cavendish bananas from a fungus that could potentially wipe out the species.
Nonetheless, the EU might not fall behind the UK and the US, as EU authorities may have found a way to tap into precision breeding as well through a new gene-editing framework that would allow New Genomic Techniques (NGT) foods to skip the long GMO approval process.
However, critics warn that the approval of a gene-editing law in the EU would undermine food traceability completely and across all countries of the bloc.
Similar traceability concerns are now being voiced in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, after the gene-editing foods legalization.
“Gene-edited plants, animals and products from England will be marketable here without the authorizations our law requires,” says a spokesperson of the Wales government.
“This undermines the devolution settlement. The UK Government chose not to engage with us, despite our efforts, while developing the Bill and this means the effects of it have not been properly considered.”
Advances in sustainability
Advocates for gene-editing hope that the edited crops will lead to increased yields, requiring less agricultural land and thus aiding biodiversity preservation. Furthermore, it is expected to reduce farm inputs such as water, fertilizers and pesticides.
“Genome editing will significantly speed up our ability to test enhanced crops in the field. With the triple threats of climate change, a burgeoning human population and widespread biodiversity loss hanging over us, the sooner we can get more resilient, more nutritious, nature-friendly crops to market the better,” says Angela Karp, chief executive professor at Rothamsted Research.
One of the researchers who will benefit from the bill is professor Peter Eastmond who is researching grass with higher fat content to make animal feed more energy-rich and reduce methane emissions.
“I strongly believe that genome editing can contribute to making farming net zero. The increase in leaf total lipid content we’ve achieved in the lab using gene-editing will likely enhance productivity and reduce methane emissions from cattle and sheep if replicated in pastures.”
“Biotechnology is by no means a silver bullet, but having access to more targeted precision breeding tools for our crops and livestock could really help bolster climate-friendly food production and support biodiversity here in Britain,” concludes David Exwood, VP of the UK National Farmers Union.
By Marc Cervera
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