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    Future

New breeding methods and genome editing in agriculture

Innovation in plant breeding plays a vital role in agriculture, helping it to keep pace with the challenges ahead.

Agriculture faces a multitude of challenges today. Climate change is causing droughts, heat stress and variable growing conditions. Increased numbers of agricultural pests and plant diseases are threatening yields and crop nutrition. As a society we not only want to secure food for a growing population, we must also improve the economic, environmental and social sustainability of our food systems. Here, one major aspect is the substantial reduction of inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers and water. Meeting these challenges requires continuous improvement of seed quality.

The goal of modern plant breeding is to provide new varieties that produce more with less.

Higher yield

... producing more per hectare from existing agricultural land, and therefore protecting natural habitats and biodiversity

Increased resistance

... or tolerance to pests and disease – requiring less chemical applications to protect crops, also leading to fewer trips to the field and thus reduced CO2 emissions

Less inputs

... such as water, fertilizers and pesticides to conserve resources, improve food quality and protect the environment

Genome editing in a nutshell

Genome editing is a new breeding method that can be used by researchers and breeders to make targeted and specific changes within the DNA of a plant.

DNA breaks and repairs occur spontaneously and frequently in nature, causing natural mutations in cells. These natural mutations ensure that organisms can adapt to new or challenging conditions over time and therefore gradually change, which is why we see rich biodiversity today.

Genome editing replaces these 'spontaneous' mutations with precision, cutting the genome at a precise and predefined position and inducing the cell's own repair mechanism. This in turn influences the expression of certain traits of the plant.

Researchers can identify the function of plant genes that can make plants more robust and/or more productive. Once a gene is identified, genome editing can be used to rapidly enhance a crop plant's resistance to a disease, its climate tolerance, nutritional value, digestibility or taste.

The results of editing in the genome can be traced to a mutation – but you would not be able to determine whether it was achieved by conventional breeding methods, by genome editing, or had occurred naturally.

1

Search

An enzyme (nuclease) is guided to the desired location in the genome.

2

Cut

The nuclease accurately cuts the DNA and creates a double-strand break.

3

Repair

While the cell’s own repair system fuses the DNA back together, sequences can be deleted or added.

Different genome editing technologies can be used, depending on the desired outcome

Depending on the crop or desired trait, different forms of genome editing can be used to enable versatility in the process. Some applications of genome editing can produce genetically modified plants by introducing foreign genes. Others, such as SDN-1 and SDN-2, do not involve any foreign genetic material. Zinc fingers, TALEN and CRISPR/Cas can all be applied in numerous ways. Given this, from a regulatory standpoint, it is important to evaluate the final product produced with these methods in a nuanced way.

New breeding methods such as genome editing are a necessary evolution that help speed up the plant breeding process.

Conventional plant breeding is a lengthy process that can, depending on the crop, take up to 25 years before an improved variety is available to farmers. It is also complex, as desirable characteristics (e.g., pest resistance) and undesirable properties (e.g. lower yield) can be taken forward from each crossing.

Genome editing allows researchers and breeders to introduce desirable characteristics by making small changes in a targeted way without incorporating undesirable properties – and that speeds up the development of new plant varieties by at least 20-30%. Speed is crucial, as climate change, pests and plant diseases are all fast-moving challenges for agriculture that require rapid solutions.

Current regulatory frameworks

There is no global regulatory framework for new breeding methods. The EU’s current regulation is effectively a ban on genome editing.

In its ruling in 2018, the European Court of Justice classified all plants developed with the aid of new breeding methods, such as genome editing, as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are currently regulated under strict EU GMO legislation, even if the plant is identical to those resulting from conventional breeding and contains no foreign DNA.

In light of this ruling, the Council of the European Union asked the EU Commission to submit a study assessing the current status and conditions for the use of new breeding methods. The study that was published in April 2021 stated that the current regulation is not fit for purpose, and that new breeding methods have the potential to contribute to a sustainable food system as part of the Farm to Fork Strategy. Currently, the EU Commission is working on public consultations and an impact assessment. At the end of this process, a proposal for a change in the current legislation for genome editing approaches is expected. Once the Commission publishes such a legislative proposal, institutional negotiations will start. As part of these negotiations, the European Parliament and the Council will decide on the adoption of the final legislative text.

Other countries have different regulations in place

The scientific consensus is that the risks associated with genome editing are equivalent to those of conventional breeding. This is reflected in the various regulatory policies around the world. While in many countries genome editing is tightly regulated, particularly across Europe, in others it is not.

KWS is a committed member of the PILTON project and supports its three main goals:

  • To provide a real-world concrete example of new breeding methods and their benefits.
  • To go through the scientific steps to ensure fair access, better understand, and gain consensus for the plant breeding sector.
  • To engage with political leaders, policy makers and the public on this important issue.

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Stephan Krings
Stephan Krings
Head of Global Marketing and Communications
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