Gene editing: is it the future?

Gene editing has been hailed as a technology that can make a very real and positive difference for farming and food, not just here but in countries around the world.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 8:09 am
Laboratory technician
Laboratory technician

But like so many new breakthroughs in the field of genetics, it is a development that brings with it a wide range of views in terms of how it can be put to best use. Politics also plays a part in this regard.

The authorities in London believe gene editing to be a force for good. Courtesy of his speech to this year’s Oxford Farming Conference Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) secretary of state George Eustice made it clear that gene editing has the potential to unlock substantial benefits to nature, the environment while also helping farmers to produce healthier and more nutritious food. The Minister also used the occasion of his speech to launch a public consultation process on gene editing.

Meanwhile, the EU has consistently struck a more cautious tone on the matter deciding – up to this point – to regulate gene editing and genetic modification in the same manner.

And, of course, this stance has direct consequences for Northern Ireland given the outworking of the final Brexit deal. However, politics aside, the principles associated with gene editing have genuinely caught the imagination of research scientists and agri stakeholder groups, both here and further afield.

What is gene editing and what does the process actually entail?

According to the DEFRA consultation document, gene edited organisms do not contain DNA from different species, and instead only produce changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods. Contrast this scenario with genetic modification, which would allow DNA from one species to be introduced into a different one. 

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) believes that gene editing could make a real and positive difference when it comes to developing bespoke animal and plant breeding solutions and offers opportunities for the future of farming.

Dr Johnathan Dalzell, Head of AFBI’s Grassland and Plant Science Branch, takes up the story:“Northern Ireland has a unique climate and environment. Looking to the future farmers here will need access to plants and animals that can deliver for them across a wide range of parameters.

“Producing food more efficiently and sustainably is a very obvious priority in this regard as is the need to develop land management systems that sequester carbon and circulate nutrients in the most efficient way possible. Gene editing could play an important role towards these goals.”

The AFBI representative went on to confirm that gene editing is a proven technology.

“It works,” he stressed.

“I have used gene editing successfully while working as a research scientist at Queen’s University Belfast.”

Dalzell is very aware of the fact that the European Union has made precision breeding technologies subject to the 2001 EU Directive that bans genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He added:“As a consequence, gene editing cannot be used to routinely breed new plants and animals for commercial purposes in the EU, since it is regulated as a form of genetic modification, and the cost of deregulation would be prohibitively high.

“However gene editing introduces changes that are similar to those created by random mutagenesis, which is a mainstay of traditional breeding methods. Indeed, gene editing can introduce those changes in a much more specific way, which minimises unexpected or unwanted genetic alterations. Whilst random mutagenesis is classed as genetic modification, it is approved within EU regulations.”

According to Dalzell, the exploration of gene editing within breeding programmes is warranted, as it could significantly accelerate genetic improvement and could offer new opportunities if government approvals are realised.

“Indeed scientific teams across the UK and Ireland and even the EU, including AFBI, have the capabilities and experience that will allow this to happen.”

AFBI contributed to the public consultation on genetic technologies, recently announced by DEFRA.

Courtesy of its submission, the organisation makes it clear that gene editing and aligned techniques could allow the introduction of new traits in a timely and cost-effective way, which could rejuvenate crop and livestock breeding within the UK.

Moreover, this could provide a competitive economic advantage to local agriculture, horticulture and forestry, in addition to potential environmental benefits through enhanced productivity, resilience and sustainability.

The public consultation posed the fundamental question: “Should gene editing continue to be regulated as a GMO?” Based on current scientific knowledge, there is a case that this position should definitely be reconsidered.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research hold equally positive views, where gene editing is concerned.

Its submission to the DEFRA public consultation argues that the current situation, whereby gene edited organisms are regulated in the same way as transgenic GMOs, makes no scientific sense since the genetic changes in question could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.

Professor Angela Karp, Director of Rothamsted Research said:“For plant breeding, there is no scientific justification for considering the introduction of targeted mutations in a crop by gene editing to be more risky than either mutations that occur naturally or random mutations induced using chemical or radiation mutagenesis.

“Moreover, the potential to improve to the safety and nutritional value of food crops through miniscule genomic changes introduced by gene editing, greatly outweighs any hypothetical risk of using the technology.”

The submission also cites the example of a new gene edited wheat strain recently developed at Rothamsted which has lowered levels of asparagine but is otherwise indistinguishable from unaltered plants.

When wheat products are cooked, asparagine can be converted to acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. The new strain will enhance food safety for consumers.

The document also includes details of how gene editing can be used to improve the nutritional value of crops and promote disease resistance, potentially leading to reduced pesticide use.

Professor Karp added that the team were not arguing that there should be no regulation of new genetic technologies: “It is entirely appropriate that formal regulations are drawn up to cover the development of new technologies. These should ensure consumer safety and encourage public confidence that all the necessary precautions are being taken. However, it is important that such regulations are grounded in the science and that their management after adoption is also science-lead and enabling,” she said.

Teagasc is the Republic of Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority. A spokesperson for the organisation told Farming Life that Teagasc continues to explore editing as a research tool in accordance with current EU GMO legislation, adding: “The work is lab-based and focussed on investigating the use of editing as a proof-of-concept technique to study the function of specific genes of interest.

“These candidate genes have been selected due to their potential to improve performance and/or reduce future inputs in production systems.

“As per our strategic remit to investigate the potential impact of novel technologies, Teagasc will continue to examine the relevance of novel breeding techniques as they are developed and reported in the published literature. Also being explored is societal acceptance to gene editing technologies.”

But what do our farming organisations think of gene editing? Initially the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) were not submitting a response to the DEFRA consultation. However, as policy officer Patricia Erwin confirmed, the Union is now reviewing this position in the context of the rules within the NI Protocol and Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the EU.  

She added:“This is a complex issue with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in July 2018 that all genome-edited plants should be treated legally as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“In taking this stance use was made of definitions dating from 2001. Not all agreed with this decision, suggesting it fails to adequately distinguish between techniques that introduce small genetic changes akin to those produced by traditional breeding programmes, and the creation of transgenic organisms whose genomes contain DNA introduced from other species.

“GM technologies involve inserting new DNA into an organism’s genome, giving the resulting plant or animal desired characteristics. Genome editing is a group of technologies that make the changes within the organisms’ own DNA by moving, adding or deleting precise pieces of genetic material.

“Currently GMOs, and food or feed made from GMOs, can be marketed in or imported into the EU, provided that they are authorised after passing strict evaluation and safety assessment requirements.”

Patricia continued: “In November 2019, the European Commission requested a study on new genomic techniques to be completed by 30 April 2021. This study will review the implementation and enforcement of the GMO legislation including an analysis of ethical and societal implications of gene editing.

“Recent discussions with all the UK farming unions revealed this review may impact NI as a consequence of the EU and NI protocol arrangements.

“Farm to Fork and the European Green Deal, aims to contribute to a more sustainable food system.

“However, while the F2F strategy highlights the importance of innovative solutions across the entire food value chain, including plant breeding and crop production systems, some hold concern that the continued uncertainty regarding the regulatory status of genome editing organisms may present obstacles to reaching the aims of the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies.” 

She concluded:“As a region, farmers in Northern Ireland face the same challenges identified by NFU for their British farmers associated with volatile weather, the move toward net zero, pests, weeds and disease control, a growing need for resource efficiency, greater environmental performance, food and feed quality and safety, high input and labour costs, nutritional health needs and the complex competitive global agriculture marketplace.

“Some hold the opinion that biotechnology, particularly in the form of genetic modification and genome editing, holds genuine and exciting solutions.

“The issue is that if the UK and EU diverge from the status quo longer term, Northern Ireland may be exposed and ultimately disadvantaged, Scotland may find themselves in a similar place. This could throw up potential implications on trade and some fear farmers could find themselves inhibited from having access to the best technological and scientific advances going forward.”

DAERA was also asked to clarify its current policy position, where gene editing is concerned. A Department spokesperson said:“The DEFRA consultation relates to England only. Due to the NI Protocol, Northern Ireland is required to maintain the EU position on GE/GMO and the other devolved administrations may also maintain the EU position.”

So there you have it, a cross section of views expressed on what gene editing could potentially offer farming and food here in Northern Ireland.

While full recognition must be taken of DAERA’s current position on the matter, there is little doubt that the issue of gene editing will be moving up the order of ‘debating priorities’ at Stormont during the period ahead.