What is gene editing and how could it be used to develop new food crops?

Technique could help breed plants that are more nutritious or resistant to pests and diseases

Tom Batchelor
Wednesday 29 September 2021 18:33
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The government has announced plans to relax rules around gene editing, claiming it will enable easier research and development of more nutritious or pest-resistant food crops.

But the relaxation of gene-editing guidelines, which is a result of the UK cutting ties with the EU and its stricter regulations on the practice, is controversial, with campaigners warning about potential safety implications from a “high-tech free-for-all”.

Gene editing makes changes to the traits within a species of plant or animal much more quickly and precisely than traditional selective breeding, which has been used for centuries to create stronger, healthier crops and livestock.

Editing the genes of plants could help breed crops that are more nutritious or resistant to pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical pesticides that harm wildlife, and boosting yields.

There is a difference between gene editing, which involves the manipulation of genes within a single species or genus, and genetically modified (GM) organisms, in which DNA from one species is introduced to a different one.

What is gene-editing?

The growth of plants and animals is controlled by information stored in their genes.

Gene editing covers a range of techniques which are used to alter the DNA of organisms.

It can be used to alter physical traits, such as eye colour, in animals or lower the risk of disease in plants and crops.

The process of editing a gene is often described as like using scissors to cut the DNA at a specific point. Scientists can then add, remove or change the DNA as required.

Generally speaking, gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from other species – that is genetic modification (GM).

Supporters of gene editing say it is a process which causes changes that could still be made naturally using traditional breeding methods, only that it would take a lot longer to achieve the same results.

According to the Food Standards Agency, “changes introduced by genome editing can be identical to those occurring naturally or achieved through traditional breeding but can be made more quickly and precisely … Genome editing can have many uses, which range from making small changes to DNA to adding new genes to improve traits in an organism”.

Currently, gene editing is regulated just as genetic modification is because of a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018.

The UK government is changing these rules to allow gene editing research to be used to produce stronger crops and livestock.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has cited research showing that gene editing may help to resist dangerous diseases like Swine Fever in pigs and Avian Influenza in chickens.

What do opponents of gene editing say?

GM Freeze, an umbrella group of charities and other organisations seeking to highlight concerns about the impact of genetic modification, argues that not enough is known about gene editing.

The group states on its website: “As genetic engineering technologies such as gene editing advance, so does the realisation that our knowledge of gene functioning is still very incomplete.

“By proposing to remove existing safeguards, the government appears to have decided that what we don’t know does not matter and that we should take our chances with potential adverse effects on people, animals and the environment.”

Commenting on the latest government plans, Joanna Lewis, Soil Association director of policy and strategy, said: “Changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them temporarily immune to disease is not a long-term solution; we should be investing in solutions that deal with the cause of disease and pests in the first place, including a lack of crop diversity, the decline in beneficial insects, and animal overcrowding.

”We must increase soil carbon, wildlife and animal welfare on farms to solve the climate and nature crises, and protect human health.“

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