• Dr Joanne Delange

Fine-Tuning Nature: Plans to Allow the Use of Genome Editing in Crop Production


The UK government has announced plans to allow the use of genome-editing approaches to research and develop food crops in order to safeguard the environment. They propose that the development of genome-edited crops could help food become more nutritious or reduce the need for harmful chemical pesticides.


Following a public consultation earlier this year, the government is now setting out plans for the future of genome editing in England. Allowing the use of genome editing in the production of food crops could streamline innovative applications that are considered to have economic, environmental and nutritional benefits.


The proposal is to remove the hurdles that plant scientists face when starting a field trial of genome-edited crops, which is vital in order to see how they grow in natural conditions. However, the UK government has not changed the regulations on genome-edited livestock.


Professor Robin May, chief scientific adviser from the Food Standards Agency explained: 'We support giving consumers' choice. We recognise the potential benefits of genome-editing methods, and understand the Government's desire to unlock innovation and take advantage of opportunities for greater productivity and environmental sustainability in the food chain.'


Genome Editing


Genome-edited foods have specific genes deleted, switched off, or a variation to the gene introduced to create a higher yielding, disease-resistant and more nutritious crop without the need to use pesticides or herbicides.


Genome editing can be performed by a number of approaches, which all work by using enzymes to cut DNA at specific points. These changes can be identical to those that occur naturally, or achieved through traditional breeding methods. However, they can be achieved much more quickly and precisely. It can take up to 15 years to alter the genes of crops via traditional methods, genome editing is able to drastically reduce this timescale.


One particular approach to genome editing is called CRISPR, which is highly precise and is simpler, cheaper and significantly faster than traditional methods. The changes to the crop's genome are permanent and can be passed on through seeds.


Genome Editing vs Genetically Modified


Not to be confused with genetically modified foods, foods that have been produced by genome editing have not had foreign genes from other species added to the food crop. In February 2020, Nutritional Insight investigated the differences between genetically modified organisms and genome-editing, in particular how the two are regulated both inside and outside of the EU.


Essentially, genome editing is an approach that makes plant breeding more precise and efficient so that crops can be produced that are more nutritious, resistant to pests and disease, more productive and more beneficial to the environment.


Leaving the European Union


In Europe, genetically modified and genome-edited foods have to undergo extensive regulatory approval, although this is not the case in North America where regulators generally look at final outcomes and not the process used to get to there.


Genome-edited foods do not have to undergo a risk assessment as it is deemed that genome editing is simply an extension of traditional plant breeding and thus no approval is necessary.


Furthermore, a genome-edited tomato has become the first CRISPR-edited food on sale to the public. Sanatech Seed, in Japan, produced genome-edited tomato seedlings with an increased nutritional content earlier this year, with the tomatoes now grown and ready for sale.


Leaving the European Union allows the UK to adopt a different set of rules to Europe, which allows a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genome editing in food production. The UK plans to make research and development easier.


Research and Development


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the UK. Defra will still need to be informed of any research trials involving genome editing, however plant research and development using genome editing will become aligned with research and development using traditional breeding methods.


Professor May, said: 'Our role moving forwards will be to work closely with colleagues in Defra and other key stakeholders both inside and outside of government, to ensure that the way we regulate genetic technologies is appropriate and robust, and crucially meets our objectives of prioritising food safety and protecting consumers'


Defra has already granted permission to research institute Rothamsted Research to run a series of field trials of wheat that has been genome-edited. The institute has used CRISPR to edit the genome of the wheat in order to reduce levels of the naturally occurring amino acid, asparagine, which is converted to the carcinogenic processing contaminant, acrylamide, when bread is baked or toasted.


It is hoped that encouraging plant research scientists to develop more nutritious, healthier foods will ultimately lead to more sustainable and resilient farming systems, which is imperative in the face of the current climate crisis. Furthermore, by speeding up the time it takes to produce the required crop will positively impact vulnerable ecosystems, not only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but by also reducing the expanse of land required to grow crops.


Samantha Brooke, chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders, said: 'We strongly welcome the Government's plan to make controls on genome editing more science-based… It will certainly boost prospects for plant breeding companies large and small, as well as scientists in the public sector, to continue improving our food crops for the benefit of society and the environment.'


Conclusion


The use of genome editing in crop production will not only help farmers but will also reduce impacts on the environment. The change in legislation in England is proposed to be brought into effect before the end of the year.


Genome edited foods are currently not sold in the UK, however, these developments will allow the sale of genome edited foods in supermarkets in the UK for the first time, though this is unlikely for a few years.


References


Plans to unlock power of gene editing unveiled. GOV.UK. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plans-to-unlock-power-of-gene-editing-unveiled


The Food Standards Agency responds to government gene editing plans. Food Standards Agency. Available at

https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/the-food-standards-agency-responds-to-government-gene-editing-plans


Tomato in Japan is first CRISPR-edited food in the world to go on sale. IFL Science. Available at

https://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/tomato-in-japan-is-first-crispredited-food-to-go-on-sale-/


Genome edited wheat field trial gets go-ahead from UK government. Rothamsted Research. Available at

https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/genome-edited-wheat-field-trial-gets-go-ahead-uk-government

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