Gene editing: better breeding or a bad business?

The science behind gene editing (GE) is complicated, and so are the arguments around its use. But what is GE anyway? Is it the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

GMOs and gene editing

GMOs are plants, animals, or other living things, that have had their DNA altered in a way that does not happen naturally. This usually involves including genes from completely different plants or animals.  GE is a technology that uses naturally occurring enzymes to change DNA in a very precise way. As this is a natural process there has been a debate about whether or not it is the same as genetic modification (GM).

Gene editing: a tool for breeding

However the technology is classified, it is important to highlight that GE is merely a tool that can rapidly develop new varieties of crops and livestock. But there are different, and opposing, views on whether this is a good thing.

Whatever the view, GE is just another breeding technique. Plant and animal breeding can be used to produce ‘better’ crops and livestock. These can have characteristics that will benefit animal welfare, public health, the environment, and farmers. New varieties and breeds with desirable traits that help farmers provide ‘public goods’ and avoid ‘public bads’ are an important piece of the sustainable farming jigsaw. They can be used as part of a future farming system that will better achieve sustainable practices that politicians and some farmers want to see, like IPM (Integrated Pest Management) or regenerative farming.

Concerns over gene editing

Opponents of GE have several concerns about its use. One is that it will be used by large corporate companies to profit from farmers by ‘locking’ them into buying more inputs. Another is that the technology is inherently dangerous. And another view is that GE will be viewed by policymakers and the farming industry as a ‘silver bullet’ that alone will address environmental challenges, and so delaying other actions that could be taken. But how valid are these concerns?

Will GE be used by large plant breeding companies only interested in selling more inputs, disadvantaging farmers in the long term?
With a bit of help, GE can be made available to smaller businesses and research institutes. As the technology speeds up breeding it also bring costs down, in the long term. Lower costs will let others get involved in plant breeding, bringing in a greater diversity of varieties and breeds. Having a more diverse set of plant breeders, including those who are not involved in selling plant protection products, should result in lower input use, and potentially in lower business costs and improved profit margins.

Could editing genes cause unexpected and damaging changes in plants or livestock further down the line?

There are already laws, regulatory controls and processes in place to protect human, animal and environmental health. Ultimately, GE is just another (breeding) tool to help produce an output (new breeds and varieties). The NFUS argues that as GE does not involve adding genes from different organisms, the outputs of the breeding technology should be subject to existing regulations. This is separate from GM, which should be regulated differently.

Isn’t GE just a distraction from pressing climate and nature concerns?

New breeds and varieties of plants and animals with desirable traits that reduce farming’s carbon footprint and the inputs that could potentially be environmentally damaging are essential to the future of food and farming. Rather than distracting from the problem, new breeds and varieties are an important part of the solution. But they shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet.

The UK view

The UK government say that GE is not GM, and in March Defra consulted on the regulation of both gene editing (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Defra are currently using the consultation responses to consider new policy about how these technologies will be regulated.

The European view

In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that GE (and any other ‘mutagenesis breeding technologies’) is GM.
The EU Commission has just recently published a study on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) that could be the starting point for a change in the EU’s attitude to GE. It shows that NGTs (some of the techniques used in GE) have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system as part of the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

This study also finds that the current GMO legislation, adopted in 2001, is not fit for purpose for these breeding technologies. The Commission has decided the study gives good enough reasons to look at policy relating to plant breeding with some types of GE. As a result, a wide and open consultation process discussing the design of a new legal framework for these biotechnologies has begun.

The Scotland view?

The Scottish Government has been clear in its opposition to the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland and does not seem to be ready yet to differentiate GM from GE. The Scottish Government has said it will wait for the outcome of the EU Commission review of future regulation of GE before deciding how to proceed, and is expected to align with the EU position.

The NFUS view

In the 20th century a plant breeding revolution increased the yield potential of crops, benefitting farmers and feeding a growing population, one of the biggest challenges of the time. But this did have an environmental cost, as more inputs were needed to achieve this yield potential.

In the 21st century a new breeding revolution can help address the biggest challenges of our time, the biggest one right now being climate change. There are a lot of things that need to be done to address the challenges we now face, and GE is a tool that should be taken out and used to move forward to a net zero future.

Author: David Michie

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About The Author

David Michie

David has been involved in the agricultural sector for the last two decades where he has worked on his family farm, at an agricultural science agency, as an agricultural and rural business consultant, and for an environmental food and farming charity. He joined NFUS in 2021 as their crops policy manager, where his role includes working with the arable, oilseed, potato, soft fruit, horticulture, and ornamental sectors.

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