OOn July 24, 2019, Boris Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street and delivered his first speech as Prime Minister. Among the many promises he made was that he would “free the UK’s extraordinary biosciences sector from anti-gene editing rules”. Such a move would allow the nation to “grow the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world,” he added.
Almost three years later, Johnson’s government finally spelled out, in last week’s Queen’s Speech, how it hopes to achieve that goal. This will be done through the forthcoming Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. The proposed legislation has been welcomed by leading British biologists, although they also warned last week that a long battle awaits them before British plant and animal science is close to saving the world.
“This bill will allow us to take a few small steps,” said Professor Nick Talbot of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a plant research institute based in Norfolk. “That’s good news, of course, but we’ll still need a lot more public discussion of the issues at stake before we can really make progress.”
Examples of the problems to come are illustrated by new products created by British scientists, such as potatoes resistant to blight and crops rich in omega-3 nutrients. These are still unlikely to be approved through the proposed new regulatory framework and will remain stuck in the regulatory purgatory that has locked them in for some years.
A fundamental problem is that there are two different genetic technologies that are 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 characteristic displayed by the parent plant – protection against a particular disease, for example. Developed in the 1990s, GM crops were the subject of a vocal campaign based on the unsubstantiated claim that ‘Frankenfoods’ made from these plants were ‘unnatural’ and dangerous to health and the environment. .
The second technology is newer and is known as gene editing. Two of its creators, French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, a key gene-editing technique. It allows scientists to modify the composition of a gene without adding new DNA. They simply tinker with an organism’s existing genetic makeup, allowing them to create crop strains with new attributes – such as drought resistance – but without adding genetic material.
It was this technique that was highlighted in the Queen’s speech last week. By contrast, GM technology is unlikely to be included, the scientists concluded. “The government seems to be saying there is a problem with GM plants, but these beautiful GM crops will be exempted and not caught up in tight regulation,” said Professor Jonathan Jones, who is also based at the Sainsbury’s Lab. .
For two decades, Jones and his team worked to create a blight-resistant potato known as PiperPlus. In every way it is identical to the Maris Piper, the UK’s most widely grown potato – with one difference. It is resistant to late blight, a devastating agricultural scourge that costs UK farmers tens of millions of pounds every year.
“Farmers have to spray their fields 15 times a year to protect their potatoes,” Jones told the Observer. “Their tractors spit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and compact the soil in the fields, and the chemicals they spray can enter the water supply.”
The PiperPlus could circumvent these problems – but faces a major problem: it was created by GM technology and, at this time, there is no indication that the new bill will provide a regulatory framework for the approval of plants created in this way. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the new bill will create a regulatory regime for plants and animals that “show genetic changes which may be due to traditional breeding or natural”. This definition would allow GM crops and animals to be raised on UK farms, but not those derived from GM techniques.
So crop varieties are always going to be regulated not on their properties, but on the method used to create them. “Regulation of genetic technologies should be based on the outcome of any genetic change rather than the current focus on the technology used to effect a genetic change,” warned Professor Dame Linda Partridge, Vice-President of the Royal Society. .
This point was supported by Professor Johnathan Napier, of Rothamsted Research. “The problem is that GM is more powerful technology. There are some things that gene editing can’t do that GM can do, and that’s going to be a problem if we’re going to develop new strains of crops that can withstand droughts and heat waves and we also provide new sources of nutrition.
As an example, Napier highlighted his team’s work in creating plants that make omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, and may also play a protective role against cancer and other conditions. The world’s main source of omega-3 nutrients is fish, but as global stocks dwindle, the planet faces a critical shortage.
“Our omega-3 cultures have been tried and tested and believed to be a solution, but are considered contaminated because they were created using GM techniques,” Napier added. “We need the government to launch a new approach to plant science. This bill should only be seen as the start of the process.
Other scientists have been careful to point out the benefits of creating regulations to control the spread of genetically modified crops and animals. At the Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh, scientists have used the technology to delete sections of a gene in pigs, a move that has created a breed resistant to the serious disease Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome which can lead to widespread deaths in pig farms. .
“We have been working on creating resilient pigs in this way and are now ready to pass it on to livestock companies, so this proposed legislation comes at a very good time,” said Roslin-based Professor Alan Archibald. “We could also consider using this technology to breed pigs that are resistant to African swine fever, a major killer worldwide.”
Roslin’s work raises another problem, however. The new legislation outlined in the Queen’s Speech will only apply to England. Scotland has delegated control of these regulations, and given that the SNP retains majority control of the Scottish Government through a coalition with the Green Party, it is by no means certain that any legislation similar will be adopted north of the border. As Archibald said, “It could get messy.”
In short, the United Kingdom is still far from having liberated its “extraordinary biosciences sector”, although an encouraging start has been made. What is also clear is the urgency of the need to continue new research on plants and animals and to ensure that new products arrive in fields and farms as soon as possible.
As scientists have warned, the world’s population will likely reach 10 billion by 2050 and new disease-resistant strains of crops and farm animal breeds will be needed to feed the world. At the same time, global warming threatens to devastate crops as the world heats up. Crops that can survive droughts are also urgently needed, researchers say.
“Agriculture has a major impact on the environment,” said Professor Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Center in Norfolk. “It produces far more carbon emissions than the aircraft industry, for example. Additionally, fertilizers are made from fossil fuels, and along with pesticides, they can also have a major detrimental effect on the local ecology. Only science can save us from such problems.