Farmer warns against headlong charge into gene editing of crops

Insect life on Brian Barker's wheat crop Picture: BRIAN BARKER

A consultation has begun on bringing in gene editing (GE) technology in the UK - Credit: Brian Barker

A senior Suffolk farmer has urged caution over gene editing UK crops after the government put its weight behind the technology.

Environment secretary George Eustice launched a consultation on future regulation of gene editing (GE) in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, January 7. 

“Its potential was blocked by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018 which is flawed and stifling to scientific progress. Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence. That begins with this consultation,” said Mr Eustice.

Unlike genetic modification — a controversial technology which has been banned in the EU and where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one — gene editing involves speeding up processes that could be done through traditional plant breeding methods and do not involve DNA from different species, its supporters argue. 

But Glenn Buckingham, who is chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and farms at Helmingham, near Debenham, called for careful consideration of any environmental impacts — and issues around who owns the technology.

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“I have never believed in GMO (genetically modified organism or genetic modification) — it leads to monocultures which are not sustainable — but gene editing is different and may well have some advantages. But we need to be wary. Who will control the genes? In fact, who will own them? Perhaps humanity should collectively own them,” he said.

“As we change the way we value other species which are in decline, we must ensure GE does not exacerbate any further damage to the ecological system that supports us and the species we share the planet with. 

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“We have one main challenge and that is to de-carbonise. Therefore if genes are identified that reduce the carbon footprint of food production, that may well be a good thing.”

There were many examples such as reducing the methane from ruminant livestock and improving nutrient efficiency in crops, he said. 

“In wheat for example septoria-resistant traits were bypassed 60 years ago for higher yield — therefore the last 60 years has seen significant expenditure on fungicides and yield loss. Who has won out of that?”

In cases where crops suffer from insect invasions which infect them with a virus the need to control the insects — which are part of the food chain for other species — or the disease itself needed to be considered, he added. 

The goal of the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) was to enhance the environment for all species and this shouldn’t be undermined, he argued.

“As I understand it the technique for GE is established, but not all genomes are mapped yet, so picking the particular genes to transfer within a species may not be known,” he said. 

“There is no doubt it will be faster than natural breeding techniques, but we must be careful there are no unintended consequences, either in the environment, trade or consumer perception.”

On the other hand, a trade barrier could improve the UK’s food security and cut carbon emissions, he added as he called for “good participation” in the consultation. Many UK farmers suffered a disastrous harvest in 2020.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw — who farms near Colchester — welcomed the potential benefits GE could offer.

“New precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have the potential to offer huge benefits to UK farming and the environment and are absolutely critical in helping us achieve our climate change net zero ambition,” he said.

“In our drive to achieve net zero by 2040, these new tools could help us address pest and disease pressures on our crops and livestock, increasing our resilience in the event of extreme weather events, as well as reducing our impact through a more efficient use of resources, resulting in lower emissions and less waste.

“New biotechnologies are also enabling the development of foods with much more direct benefit to the public, such as healthier oils, higher vitamin content and products with a longer shelf life.
“Certainty, transparency and trust in the regulation of biotechnologies, such as gene editing, are essential for farmers and industry, society and scientists, so that safe and effective precision breeding can be delivered as part of a thriving, knowledge-based, food and farming sector and we look forward to responding to this government consultation in detail.

“We know that on its own gene editing will not be a silver bullet, but it could be a very important tool to help us meet the challenges for the future.”

Mr Eustice said gene editing had “the ability to harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age. This includes breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change”.

Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said the “overwhelming view” among public sector scientists was that the Nobel Prize-winning technology can accelerate the availability of crops and livestock for sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture.

The Food Standards Agency’s chief scientific adviser Professor Robin May welcomed the consultation and said there were strict controls on GM crops, seeds and food which the FSA will continue to apply.

“As with all novel foods, GE foods will only be permitted to be marketed if they are judged to not present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, and not have lower nutritional value than existing equivalent foods. We will continue to put the consumer first and be transparent and open in our decision-making. Any possible change would be based on an appropriate risk assessment that looks at the best available science.”

The consultation will run until March 17.

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