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Let’s talk about the future: New breeding methods and genome editing in agriculture

Our experience shows: Innovations in plant breeding are generally welcomed by all social groups. New breeding methods such as genome editing, however, are a complex issue that raise many questions:

  • Why is genome editing an opportunity for more sustainable agriculture?
  • Are there faster breeding methods for crops that are more resistant to diseases and pests?
  • How are crops bred using certain genome editing methods identical to those growing in the wild?

This makes dialogue even more important—to clarify these issues and make decisions about the acceptability and use of these methods. Our principle: To make progress towards sustainable agriculture, a careful balance should be struck between scientific innovation and regulatory requirements.

Why we consider genome editing

By the year 2050, almost ten billion people will inhabit the earth. This is almost twice as many as in 1990. The world’s growing population presents agriculture with enormous challenges.

Sustainable land use is now more important than ever. As are steady and stable yields. This aim makes it necessary to keep making progress in the area of plant breeding. Crops such as corn, wheat and potatoes have been feeding people for many centuries. But changing environmental conditions and different lifestyles have always challenged humanity to use the discoveries of their time to adapt agriculture to new nutritional requirements.

How can genome editing help us do this?

The stability and simplicity of use offered by new breeding methods offers unique possibilities. They facilitate the development of new, high-yielding varieties specifically adapted to their environment. Increasing problems caused by pests, diseases, droughts induced by climate change and degradation of arable land can be more effectively mitigated, while at the same time ensuring food production in sufficient quantities at affordable prices.

How exactly does genome editing work?

Just another form of genetic engineering?

The new methods can be used in a variety of ways. Depending on their application, some of them can produce genetically modified plants. Given this, it is important to evaluate these methods in a nuanced manner. Zinc fingers, TALEN and CRISPR/Cas can be applied in different ways. Variants 1 and 2 are products of procedures that do not involve gene transfer. Our selection shows how plants are bred using the new methods.

What nature produces only at random and takes traditional breeders many years of money and effort can be attained by genome editing in a precise and targeted manner, in a short period of time. Even though the results do not exceed those obtained by nature or Mendel’s cross-over and recombination possibilities, these methods allow us to make what is random predictable, and breed more efficiently and effectively.

This makes the plants that result from many of the new methods identical to nature. In other words, the plants could have resulted from traditional breeding methods or randomly through natural mutations. The results do not differ from plants bred in a traditional way as far as their genetic make-up and their properties are concerned. They do not contain any externally modified genes or genes that are foreign to the species.

Genome editing: our principle

Thanks to their simplicity of use, we see great potential in the new breeding methods. The possibilities that genome editing offer allow us to breed new, higher-yielding varieties more rapidly and more effectively. This also makes it easier to solve issues relating to the sustainability and future of agriculture. And because the new methods are effective and easy to use, they can also be used by small and medium-sized breeders.

Under the current legal framework, it is important to differentiate between the different genome editing applications for regulatory assessment purposes. Some can lead to genetically modified plants, while others are similar to those obtained through traditional breeding methods. These preserve the species barrier and lead to plants that could have grown naturally or through traditional breeding methods and are therefore identical to their natural counterparts. We believe that a major factor for regulatory classification is a combined analysis of the methods used during the production process and the resulting products.

Nature-identical results

Plants bred using new breeding methods such as genome editing that could have grown spontaneously in nature or could have resulted from traditional cross- and combination breeding should be classified as nature-identical. Separate regulation is not necessary.

Genetic Engineering

Plants that result from a targeted transfer of foreign genes or genetic components, on the other hand, fall under the Genetic Engineering Act of the European Union.

Our principle

Classic and new procedures that produce nature-identical plants currently take priority in our product development for Europe. This is our aim and our commitment. What our customers and society as a whole require from us as a plant breeder is the guiding principle of our actions. These requirements differ in each of the 70 countries in which KWS SAAT SE operates. It is therefore always important to find the right solution for a wide range of requirements. Plants should generally be evaluated based on their properties.

Your contact

Stephan Krings
Stephan Krings
Head of Global Marketing and Communications
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