Advancing gene edited crops is crucial for the UK economy & global food security
Changes to gene editing regulation could boost UK research and economy
The Earlham Institute is calling on the Government to update UK regulation regarding gene editing in plants. Crop scientists want to modernise the regulatory framework to bring the UK in line with other leading nations, offering the potential to improve global food security, increase innovation in agriculture and provide a much-needed boost to the economy.
The UK currently follows EU regulations, which requires all plants with edited genes to pass through the same slow and expensive regulatory process – even when they do not contain any new DNA. Gene editing is being used in plants as a new breeding technique for crop improvement and, outside of the EU, those crops are already reaching the market.
The Government’s Agriculture Bill, currently going through parliamentary scrutiny, could offer a timely opportunity to reform the way we research, grow and market gene edited plants. The Earlham Institute is among a number of research organisations urging policy makers to seize this opportunity to future-proof the UK’s agribioscience sector.
In the early 1990s, the UK was considered a global leader in crop biotechnology. Adopting EU regulations had the unintended effect of curbing this progress. The regulatory processes make no distinction between GM crops that contain inserted DNA and gene edited crops which may only have a single letter of DNA deleted. The latter are far more similar to crops bred using long-established mutagenesis technologies, which are not regulated in this way.
The implementation of the regulations meant that seed and breeding companies, put off by the additional cost and time for product development, left the EU. Many of the promising steps taken by UK plant scientists were stopped in their tracks because there was no clear path to translation.
While regulation remains critical, the cumbersome and restrictive system has stifled innovation in the UK while other countries have reaped the scientific, social and economic benefits of a more flexible approach.
Today, few GM crops are developed or grown within the EU. At the same time, outside of Europe, GM crops are widely grown and many GM products are imported by the EU for food and feed. As a global leader in research and development, the UK is primed to apply this technology to its crops, improving the sustainability and profitability of agriculture.
Leading research institutes like the Earlham have access to a technology - gene editing - which offers a nuanced alternative to mutation breeding, which has been used since the mid-twentieth century. Rather than using mutagens such as chemicals or UV light to increase the variability of DNA in crop plants, allowing the selection of desirable traits, gene editing makes it possible to make small, specific genetic changes in target genes using modern tools including the oft-cited CRISPR-Cas9. The results, variations in DNA sequence, are comparable to those obtained by breeders since the dawn of civilization but are more precise and much quicker.
The UK bioscience community is in a strong position to apply gene editing solutions that could improve agriculture, enhance global food security, and add millions of pounds to the UK economy. But, to do so, the regulatory system must be updated and more appropriate regulatory processes applied.
The Earlham Institute is calling on the UK government to help foster a more nuanced, favourable environment for gene editing research. This would keep the UK at a competitive edge outside of the EU and, by encouraging the emerging bioeconomy, would also go a long way to helping the UK Government meet its aim of 2.4% GDP spending on science research, with two thirds of the increase required from industry investment.
Not to embrace new technologies for crop breeding would be a massive missed opportunity. Considering the tremendous expertise in the UK, it could make a significant contribution – both nationally and globally – to farming and food security.
While countries such as the USA, Australia, Canada and Brazil, among many others, have chosen not to apply GM regulations to gene edited crops, the EU continues to miss out on the economic and environmental benefits ushered in by modern biotechnology. These countries are already seeing the fruits of gene editing come to the fore, with several companies and products hitting the market.
A further impediment is that, if gene-edited crops are regulated differently within the UK as they are by our trading partners, this hampers trade. It is very difficult in practice to differentiate between crops improved by conventional breeding techniques or through gene editing. To adopt similar regulatory standards regarding gene edited crops as the USA, Australia, Canada and Brazil would not only attract more companies to invest in UK research and development but also ease the trade of agricultural products.
There are also compelling reasons, from a global perspective, to adopt better methods of crop improvement.
Food production must increase by around 60-70% worldwide in order to properly nourish a global population forecast to reach ten billion or more by 2050. At the same time, the stress placed on our planet due to intensive agriculture poses a great threat to biodiversity, water security and soil health. There is growing urgency to find ways of producing more from less, while dealing with the effects of a changing climate - including increased drought, extreme weather, and emerging pests and disease.
Organic agriculture has been touted as a solution to these combined stresses yet requires more land to produce the same amount of food, therefore it has been shown to have a worse impact on the environment overall. It is not a sufficient solution to the combined problem of having to feed more people using fewer resources. In many cases, it’s likely better to strive to achieve higher intensity production on the land already used for farming, while minimising stresses on the environment.
Since the first GM crops were grown in 1994, a total of 70 countries have adopted biotech crops through cultivation and importation, planting 191.7 million hectares of biotech crops which account for 12% of global arable land. By increasing yields and reducing losses, GM has contributed to food availability and security. By raising farmer and rural incomes, it has improved economic access to food. The growth of herbicide resistant crops has been associated with more years in education in developing countries, where farmers’ children otherwise provide manual labour. The growth of pest-resistant crops is empirically associated with reduction in pesticide applications, leading to a recovery of biodiversity.
Gene editing offers a route by which we can reduce the environmental damage associated with agriculture while increasing food production, as well as improving the livelihoods and health of people worldwide.
Not only that, the techniques employed mean that products can be generated and tested incredibly quickly compared to conventional techniques. Importantly, the applications shouldn’t necessarily conflict with the aims of organic agriculture, which are to use less harmful agrichemicals such as pesticides.
With the UK’s departure from the EU, it is of paramount importance that some of the promises of Brexit - more international trade, for example - are made possible. One clear path is to embrace gene edited crops and to cultivate an attractive research environment for agribiotechnology in the UK that could bring in new business and contribute hundreds of millions to the UK economy, all while improving the sustainability of agriculture in the long term.