Informing the debate on modern plant breeding

To explore new questions in plant biology, we require the most up-to-date technology available.

This allows us to understand how plant genetics and genome regulation influence plant development and plant-environment interactions and involves developing new innovations and methods.

Modern plant breeding techniques are being debated and discussed by a wide range of groups (including the public, end users such as growers and farmers and the Government and Members of Parliament).

Currently, debate centres on whether modern plant breeding methods such as genome editing are good tools to use for developing the crops of tomorrow.

Being at the forefront of technology development means that our scientists are experts in their field and they can share their knowledge and expertise to allow public opinion and government policy to be developed with the most accurate information available.

We hope this contribution will ultimately lead to the development of regulation and policy which is science-led, fit for purpose and which the majority of the public understand and are happy to support.

As part of our work, we take responsibility for sharing accurate information about the technology and its’ capability.

Since 2017, when the Genes in the Environment Research Programme began this has included;

  • Providing evidence as an invited speaker at the House of Commons committee stage of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
  • Providing contributions to a POST note on Genome-Edited food crops.  These are research briefings to inform members of the House of Commons, House of Lords and UK Parliament.
  • Discussions with the Government Office for Science on the use of genome editing for science and crop development (the GO for Science provides evidence to the Prime Minister and Government on the best scientific evidence)
  • Contribution to Roundtable Reviews held by DEFRA to discuss regulation around genome editing
  • Discussions and visits from MPs, providing accurate information on genome editing technology, to allow them to make informed recommendations in Parliament
  • Discussions on modern breeding technologies with overseas Government Advisors such as the Board of GenOK from Norway
  • Membership of advisory panels, such as the Food Standards Agency Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes which assesses new foods and their safety for human consumption
  • Presentations to growers, farmers and interested parties at conferences, seminars and webinars on what this technology could mean for future crop development
  • Presentations, discussion and debate with the public, through various engagement activities such as the Sense, Science and Sustainability Webinar on modern genome editing technologies run by a Bigger Conversation
  • Taken part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme where a member of GEN was paired with Sabrina Roberts, policy lead for genetically modified organisms within the FSA

Our discussions and interactions also help us to understand the perspectives and concerns held by the public, parliamentarians and interested parties.

Genome editing technologies allow us to make small targeted changes to the DNA which can affect how a plant develops or responds to its’ environment.

This technology can be used on experimental plants as well as in crop plants and is deployed at our John Innes Centre Crop Transformation Platform, who are specialists in using this technology with crop species including wheat, barley and Brassicas. The technology has already allowed us to determine the function of many important genes of interest in our research programmes.

In 2018 the European Court of Justice classified this new technology as a type of genetic modification. While older methods of genetic modification, such as mutation breeding, can be used for crop development, new methods cannot because unlike older mutagenesis techniques they were not considered exempt from the EU GMO directive. The costs associated with navigating the genetic modification regulations mean that genome editing is unlikely to be used for crop breeding in Europe.

Other countries such as Canada, Australia and the USA regulate the small edits introduced by genome editing in the same way as mutation breeding, enabling this technology to be used for developing new crops.

We believe that these technologies are not only important for improving scientific understanding but can also be used to overcome challenges and speed up plant breeding to enable faster development of crops with new traits such as improved yield and reduced inputs that will help us respond to the global challenges of food security and climate change.

Alongside providing our expertise, we have also been instrumental in paving the way for field trials of genome edited plants, carrying out field trials of plants developed using the genome editing technology, CRISPR/CAS9, one of the first trials to be approved by DEFRA after the EU decision was made.