The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has published a position statement on new and emerging techniques for crop improvement. These novel techniques, which can introduce precise genetic changes into plants, are currently being used in research labs as a tool to help understand the function of genes. Commercial applications are likely to follow: new and improved crop varieties produced with these methods could be available world-wide over the coming years.
These novel genetic techniques, developed in recent years, are advancing rapidly. BBSRC's position statement sets out the current landscape, recognising that the techniques are already widely used in research and that the regulatory processes for new crops will need to be able to accommodate them.
The position statement was produced following a workshop involving experts from a variety of backgrounds, including plant scientists, regulators and social scientists. An expert panel was then convened to produce the statement.
The statement covers techniques commonly referred to as 'genome editing' that allow precisely targeted changes to be made to genetic information, such as adding, removing or replacing DNA at specific locations. It also covers techniques that can switch genes on and off while the DNA sequence remains unchanged.
The new position statement highlights limitations in the current EU regulatory system for new crops, which focuses on the techniques used to produce a new crop variety. This is in contrast to the process for the approval of a new medicine where the benefits and risk are assessed based on the active molecules in the drug, rather than the method by which they were produced. All genetic crop improvement methods (including conventional breeding) rely on genetic changes. As more methods for introducing genetic changes become available, it will become more challenging to identify the method used to produce a new crop variety, because exactly the same DNA changes could be made using a variety of techniques. This raises important questions about how novel crops should be regulated. The statement highlights the benefits of regulation based on the genetic trait introduced, rather than the techniques used to produce it.
BBSRC Chief Executive, Professor Jackie Hunter, said: "In order for farmers, both in the EU and globally, to provide a sustainable food supply we will need to develop crop varieties with improved characteristics, such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or enhanced nutrient content. To do this we must take advantage of the wide range of techniques available in order to use the right approach for the right circumstance, such as conventional breeding, genetic modification or newer methods like genome editing.
"With the introduction of these new technologies to enhance the range of ways we can improve plants for sustainable agriculture, regulatory processes will also need to adapt. A system based on the crop characteristics, by whatever method it has been produced, would provide more effective and robust regulation than current EU processes.
"With its excellent plant science research, the UK is well placed to lead the world in crop improvement and to facilitate the step-change in agricultural productivity that will be required to feed the world sustainably. There is no doubt that improved crop varieties will be produced using these new methods around the world and commercialised in countries outside of the EU. If we want the UK and the EU to continue to be world-leading in this area, we must ensure there is appropriate regulation in this changing landscape."
Professor Ottoline Leyser, who chaired the expert panel, said: "This is an exciting time for plant science with rapid advances in our understanding of gene function and in the technologies available to use this understanding for crop improvement. These developments present a number of important questions about how the benefits from these new techniques can best be realised, requiring active engagement of a wide range of stakeholders."
The statement can be read here: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/web/FILES/Policies/genetic-crop-improvement-position-statement.pdf (PDF 411KB)
Story source: BBSRC news release, 28 Oct 2014