On July 24, 2019, Boris Johnson gave his first speech as Prime Minister while standing outside 10 Downing Street. Among his many promises were the promise to free Britain’s preeminent life sciences sector from anti-GMO regulations. Such a move will allow countries to develop blight-resistant crops that will feed the world, he added.
Almost three years later, the Johnsons government eventually outlined how it hopes to achieve this goal in last week’s speech to Queens. This will be done through the upcoming Genetic Technology (precision breeding) legislation. Prominent British biologists welcomed the proposed legislation, but warned last week that a long fight awaits Britain’s plant and animal sciences to step in to save the world.
Professor Nick Talbot of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a Norfolk-based plant research institute, said the legislation could take us a few steps further. That’s good news, of course, but more public discussion about the issues involved is needed to actually go ahead.
Examples of the challenges ahead are illustrated by new products created by British scientists, such as plague-resistant potatoes and crops rich in omega-3 nutrients. They are still unlikely to get approval through the proposed new regulatory framework and will remain stagnant in the regulatory purgatory that has held them back for years.
The basic problem is that there are two different genetic techniques used to create new crop varieties. The first is known as genetic modification (GM) and usually involves taking an entire gene from one plant and inserting it into another.
In this way, the host plant acquires the properties marked by, for example, the protection of the original plant against certain diseases. Developed in the 1990s, GM crops have become the focus of a malicious campaign based on unsubstantiated claims that Frankenfoods made from such plants are unnatural and dangerous to health and the environment.
The second technique, more recent, is known as gene editing. Two of its founders, French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier and US Jennifer Doudna, were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of CRISPR-Cas9, a key gene-editing technology. Scientists can change the genetic makeup without adding new DNA. They can create crop strains with new traits, such as drought resistance, without adding genetic material, just fiddling with organisms with an existing genetic makeup.
Jennifer Daudna (left) and Emmanuel Chapentier were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on gene editing. Photo: Alexander Heinl/AP
It was this skill that was highlighted in last week’s Queens speech. In contrast, the scientists concluded that GM technology is unlikely to be included. The government seems to be saying there’s a problem with GM plants, but these good gene-edited crops will be exempt and not subject to stringent regulations, said Sainsbury Institute professor Jonathan Jones.
For 20 years, Jones and his team have been working to create a plague-resistant potato known as PiperPlus. They are identical to Maris Piper, the most commonly grown potato in England, in all respects, with one key difference. It is resistant to blight, a devastating agricultural disaster that costs British farmers tens of millions of pounds annually.
Farmers need to spray their fields 15 times a year to protect their potatoes, Jones told the Observer. Their tractors pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and compact the soil in the fields, and the chemicals they spray can get into the water supply.
PiperPlus can avoid these problems, but it faces a big problem. It was created by GM technology and as of now there is no sign that the new legislation will provide a regulatory framework for approving plants produced in this way. According to the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the new legislation will create a regulatory framework for plants and animals that have genetic changes that can occur through traditional breeding or natural processes. That definition allows for genetically edited crops and animals to be raised on British farms, but not those derived from GM technology.
Therefore, crop varieties will still be regulated not by their attributes, but by the method of production. Professor Dame Linda Partridge, vice president of the Royal Society, warned that regulation of genetic technology should be based on the consequences of genetic change, not the current focus on the technology used to create genetic change.
This point was supported by Professor Johnathan Napier of Rothamsted Research. The problem is that GM is a more powerful technology. Gene editing can’t do it, but there are a few things GMs can do, which will be problematic if they try to develop new varieties of crops that can withstand drought and heatwaves and provide new sources of nutrients.
For example, Napier points out that his team is working on making plants that make omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, and may even play a protective role in cancer and other conditions. The world’s main source of omega-3 nutrients is fish, but as world stocks decline, the planet faces a serious shortage.
Boris Johnson announced new regulations for genetic food technology in a speech to Queens last week. Photo: WPA/Getty Images
Our omega-3 crop has been tested and tested and may be a solution, but is considered contaminated because it is made using GM technology, Napier added. We need governments to start a new approach to plant science. This bill is just the beginning of that process.
Other scientists have carefully highlighted the benefits of making regulations to control the release of genetically engineered crops and animals. Scientists at the Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh used the technique to delete portions of a pig’s genes, creating a breed resistant to swine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a serious disease that can cause widespread death on pig farms. . .
Roslin-based Professor Alan Archibald said the proposed legislation came at a very good time, as we have been working on making resistant pigs this way and are now ready to pass it on to breeding companies. We could also consider using this technology to breed pigs resistant to African swine fever, the world’s leading killer.
However, Roslins work raises another problem. The new legislation outlined in the Queens address applies only to the UK. Scotland has delegated control over those regulations, and given that the SNP retains majority control in the Scottish government through a coalition with the Greens, it’s not entirely clear whether a similar bill will pass north of the border. As Archibald said: It can get messy.
In short, the UK is still a long way from liberating its amazing life sciences sector, despite an encouraging start. It is also clear that there is an urgent need to pursue new plant and animal research and ensure that new products are supplied to fields and farms as quickly as possible.
As scientists warn, the world’s population will reach 10 billion by 2050, and new disease-resistant crops and breeds of farm animals will be needed to feed the world. At the same time, global warming threatens to devastate crops due to global warming. Drought-tolerant crops are also urgently needed, the researchers say.
Professor Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Center in Norfolk, said agriculture has a huge impact on the environment. For example, it produces significantly more carbon emissions than the aviation industry. Fertilizers are also made from fossil fuels and, along with pesticides, can cause significant damage to local ecosystems. Only science can save us from these kinds of problems.
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