• On 23 March 2023, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 was passed. Allis Beasley, partner at Brachers law firm, talks to Professor Mario Caccamo, CEO of the crop research organisation NIAB, about what’s changed and how breeders might benefit from the new laws.

    Allis Beasley: What’s the significance of this new legislation?

    Mario Caccamo: This is one of the first times new legislation has sought to enable, rather than restrict, the use of advanced genetic technologies for agriculture and food production in England.

    This Act takes technologies that are more precise than traditional crop breeding out of the scope of the regulation which previously governed “Genetically Modifying Organisms”. This release from regulation enables the use of genome editing to fast-track the development of crops, which will help us to meet the demands for resource efficiency and climate-ready varieties.

    AB: How will NIAB take advantage of the new laws?

    MC: As recently put by Rory Riggs, a US pioneer crop biotechnologist, the development of precision breeding “is almost an analog-to-digital moment for a new breeding industry”. NIAB supported the enactment of the Act, as we believe this is a great new tool for breeders. NIAB have invested in the development of new genetics tools in order to support breeders and scientists.

    As we face the global challenges associated with climate change and feeding a growing population, continued access to genetic innovation in plant breeding will be one of the most important tools in helping us move forward.

    AB: How will gene editing help breeders and growers?

    MC: Throughout history we have seen dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity through advances in crop rotation, improved farming techniques, the development of crop protection products and fertilisers. Precision breeding techniques expand our capabilities in plant protein genetics. More broadly, the adaptation of plants to climate change can also be accelerated with precision breeding technologies such as gene editing.

    As an example, it is well known that roots with steeper angles support plants that can access moisture at deeper levels. This is a key trait in crops that can maintain high yields in periods of drought. Gene editing can be used to help us understand the underlying molecular mechanisms controlling root growth and architecture. This could allow us to select crops that can still be successful in hotter and dryer conditions such as those seen across Europe last summer.

    We are excited about the breadth of the application of precision breeding. Its relatively low cost has contributed to the democratisation of the technology which will be a catalyst for innovation and attracting private investment.

    AB: Are there any risks from gene editing?

    MC: It is clear that the risks from gene-edited crops are no greater than from conventionally bred ones. In the context of the new legislation, we should recognise the safety record delivered by the current rules governing plant breeding and the approval of new varieties. Approaches that combine biotechnology with traditional breeding, new data-intensive tools and agronomic expertise will be needed to design, implement and deploy novel crops.

    As the new Act is implemented, law-makers and regulators will feel the responsibility to ensure the benefit can be fully realised by enabling not only research but a route to market. A proportionate and science-led approach to regulation of genetic technologies in agriculture is a critical piece in the jigsaw to ensure we can continue to feed the world while protecting the environment.

    This article was first published in the June 2023 edition of South East Farmer.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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