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Breeding crops for the future

Tori Morgan of the NFU identifies the potential benefits that could arise from the use of New Breeding Techniques for crops in the UK.

It is widely accepted that by 2050 we will need to feed 9 billion hungry mouths and food production will have to increase. It will not be possible to bring much more land into production and resources are already stretched.

This is the challenge farmers are facing whilst dealing with ever more volatility created by climate change, price fluctuations, regulatory change, socio-economic, demographic and geopolitical shifts. Pests, weeds and diseases continue to threaten both quality and quantity of food produced. Access to new and innovative plant varieties will be a vital tool in managing these challenges and this article examines the potential benefits that New Breeding Techniques, or innovative plant breeding, can bring to the field.

What are New Breeding Techniques?

Throughout history, as knowledge of plant biology and genome diversity advanced so did breeding tools, continuously resulting in new opportunities to enable rapid identification and breeding of desirable characteristics in plants.[1]’  New Breeding Techniques have emerged from this process that offer novel tools for delivering desirable characteristics in crop plants, such as increased yields, insect and disease resistance and climatic tolerance. Although largely at the research stage, these techniques could revolutionise plant breeding and, by extension, farming.

They have the potential to reduce the cost and time of bringing new products to the market compared to traditional breeding techniques. They do this largely by improving the accuracy of the plant breeding process so that less time is spent removing unwanted attributes that can be transferred along with the gene of interest during the traditional breeding process. In theory, once the desired gene has been located in a plant, it is possible to make very small, precise changes. It is like using a pair of molecular scissors to snip out a tiny piece of gene with a specific objective in mind.

Although this type of precise and targeted genome editing does not occur naturally, the genetic changes generated, at least in their simplest forms, are mutations indistinguishable from those arising spontaneously in nature or through some forms of conventional breeding. There are many techniques that fall under the banner of ‘New Breeding Techniques’, including those that sequence or edit genes, and socalled speed breeding and diversity breeding techniques (see box, below). The science is also moving fast. This gives rise to the question of how these new techniques should be regulated, which is addressed in this article.

It is like using a pair of molecular scissors to snip out a tiny piece of gene with a specific objective in mind.'


New Breeding Techniques typically involve making targeted changes to a plant’s DNA in order to modify the plant’s physical characteristics (traits). The changes made can vary in scale from altering a single base (DNA is made up of four bases, A, C, G and T, the letters of the genetic code) to adding or deleting one or more genes (a DNA sequence containing the recipe for making one or more proteins). The most widely used NBTs include:

• Genome editing to modify DNA at one or more specific sites selected by the researcher. The three main techniques (CRISPR-Cas9, Zinc Finger Nucleases and TALENs) each use an enzyme (a nuclease) to cut the DNA at a specific location. Researchers are able to exploit the mechanisms that repair these cuts to make edits to the DNA.

• A specialised form of genome editing called Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM). ODM allows the introduction of targeted changes (mutations) to one or just a few bases of DNA.

• Cisgenesis (transferring a gene from the same or a closely related species) and intragenesis (inserting a reorganised regulatory coding region of a gene from the same species).

• Using epigenetic processes to change the activity of genes without changing the DNA sequence.

Source: Houses of Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, Postnote, Number 548, February 2017

Benefits of New Breeding Techniques

Through traditional plant breeding, yields are roughly increased by 1-2% a year for some crops, so that between 1990 and 2000, global food production increased by 25%[2]. However, according to the ‘Agricultural Outlook 2012- 2021[3]’ by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), actual yields for the main food crops are well below potential yields in a number of regions, with yield gaps in many developing countries in excess of 50%. New Breeding Techniques offer considerable potential to address this shortfall.

Some of the New Breeding Techniques are relatively easy, quick and cheap to use by comparison with traditional methods. They therefore allow breeders to focus more on ‘niche’ crops or localised growing conditions and to react more quickly to the changing needs and wants of growers and consumers. For example, this could include improvements, such as crops that are better suited to drier conditions. Drought resistance of crops is a key challenge globally and would be increasingly useful in the UK, as demonstrated by the dry conditions experienced this season. Some scientists even have the very ambitious goal of knocking out gluten production in certain cereal crops[4].

This type of innovative plant breeding is welcomed by farmers and could result in genetic solutions to their problems sooner, helping them to adapt more quickly to the challenges outlined above. But biotechnology is not the silver bullet; it is part of the farmer’s toolbox along with increased knowledge and understanding of agronomic practices as well as business management. This holistic principle is one practised by farmers across the UK and EU; if one tool is restricted, by default the rest are limited. Currently genetic improvement is a longer term option as commercialisation of a new variety can take over ten years, so the possibility of speeding this process up is very promising.

It is not just farmers who stand to gain. There are also benefits for consumers. These techniques can be used to manipulate genes in very specific ways. This could result in enhanced nutrient content, increased shelf life through the reduction of oxidation and bruising and improved colour, odour, flavour and texture.

These benefits are already being explored and realised by our competitors around the world. For example, in the US, a browning-resistant mushroom and a potato with better storage properties have been produced using gene editing. Disease resistance is a huge focus for the plant breeding community and already powdery mildew-resistant wheat and blight-resistant rice have been bred in China and the US respectively. Today’s health conscious consumer will also be interested in a high oleic acid soy bean bred by scientists in Minnesota[5]. Its oil is higher in mono-unsaturated fatty acids and lower in polyunsaturated fatty acids and therefore better for human nutrition.


Whilst there is huge opportunity for these new techniques to benefit the agricultural industry, realising this potential largely depends on how they are regulated and progress has been extremely slow at the EU level. There is uncertainty about the extent to which some of these techniques involve GM and therefore whether they should be regulated as such. The long history of controversy and emotion around GM means decision-making may not be based on robust scientific evidence.

The European Union considers an organism to be genetically modified if it has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. Many of the new techniques rely on the mechanisms that can be triggered through traditional breeding techniques. Although the mutations generated may not have occurred naturally, the end product is indistinguishable from those arising naturally or through conventional mutation breeding.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) concluded that the legal definition of GMO does not apply to plants produced by most of the New Breeding Techniques, so they should be exempted. They argue that the resulting plants are not different from those obtained by means of conventional breeding or they lead to plants that contain no foreign DNA.

The view that most of these techniques do not produce GMOs is shared by ACRE, the UK Government’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. There is also a general scientific consensus that most of these techniques are not GM. However, the process of regulation has become political with many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and MEPs claiming that all of these plant breeding innovations should fall into the GMO definition.

This uncertainty has been brewing in Brussels for several years, leaving the European research community and industry without clear legal guidance.

Meanwhile other countries around the world have already begun to realise the benefits varieties bred using these techniques can bring, once again placing the UK behind its competitors.

There is an active and vibrant plant breeding and seeds sector in the UK and across the EU. If the UK continues to lose out on access to this evolving technology, the expertise will go elsewhere to find opportunities for development and commercialisation.

Europe is being left behind as the rest of the world rapidly adopts new and innovative breeding technologies.'

NFU’s position

The NFU always promotes the use of robust scientific evidence in the regulation of any agricultural technology. The innovation principle should be invoked in this case, leading enabling and fit-for-purpose regulation. An extreme interpretation of the precautionary principle should not be allowed to stifle technological progress. These plant breeding innovations have the potential to help solve production challenges faced by British farmers, allowing them to build resilience and compete in the global market.

Europe is being left behind as the rest of the world rapidly adopts new and innovative breeding technologies. This is already damaging the UK’s competitiveness, driving seed companies away from Europe and deterring research and investment in varieties that could benefit British farmers, the environment and society.

The NFU would therefore like to see New Breeding Technologies regulated in accordance with the assessments from EFSA, JRC and ACRE in line with the scientific consensus that most of these techniques do not produce GMOs.

Tori Morgan, Combinable Crops Adviser, National Farmers’ Union, Agriculture House,

Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, CV8 2TZ

Email: Tel: 02476 858708 Web:





4. ‘Tools for a new plant breeding era’, Andrew Blake, Arable Farming, June 2017 p26 – 27.


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