Researchers from the Quadram Institute have today welcomed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill announced by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The legislation will support the efforts of scientists to develop the future foods we need to help overcome the global challenges we face around food security and the climate emergency.
The gene editing tools this legislation covers allow researchers to make precise changes to the genomes of plants to give them beneficial traits or characteristics. This could include crops that are more drought-resistant or need less fertiliser or pesticides. And it could open the way to more nutritious crops, providing vital missing nutrients to our diets or making staple foods that are healthier for us all and more sustainable for the planet.
The sustainability benefits are clear. The responsible use of gene editing reduces the time needed to develop these traits into crops by years. On a warming planet, with global pressures on natural resources, that time is vital.
At the Quadram Institute, part of our mission is to deliver healthier lives through innovation in food. This legislation provides keys to unlock that innovation.
“The Genetic Technology Bill provides a wonderful opportunity to explore ways to address the nutritional-deficiency that is found in many crop-based foods” said Professor Martin Warren, Quadram Institute Chief Scientific Officer.
“Gene editing allows for the development of plants with improved qualities that normally take many years to produce using tradition breeding programs. The ability to increase levels of key minerals such as iron and zinc, and vitamins A, B and D, in plants holds significant potential as a way to improve life-long health through biofortification.”
Prof. Warren heads our Food Innovation and Health programme and leads a research group looking at how to increase vitamin B12 in the diet. Plants don’t contain vitamin B12 naturally, so as more people switch to vegan or plant-based diets, there’s an increased risk of deficiency in this vital vitamin.
“As we move towards more crop-based sustainable diets the need to develop sustainable and healthy functional foods is clear.”
Dr Brittany Hazard is aiming to develop healthier varieties of wheat, a staple crop that feeds billions of people across the planet.
“The ability to employ gene editing technology in our research program will provide a substantial opportunity to accelerate the development of staple crops that can deliver health benefits to consumers” said Dr Hazard.
In particular, Dr Hazard is looking at ways of increasing the fibre content of wheat, to make healthier bread. We can then verify those benefits to health in clinical trials.
For example, the aim of an ongoing intervention study at the Quadram Institute is to measure the impact of high-resistant starch bread on blood sugar levels. The wheat in this study was selected using modern breeding techniques, but even so has taken years to develop.
Wheat is genetically very complex, making it harder to breed in desirable traits. Gene editing provides a way to make precise, controlled changes.
“We anticipate that gene editing will allow us to overcome many challenges and lengthy timescales of conventional breeding and rapidly generate wheat with enhanced levels of dietary fibre that could easily be adopted by plant breeders.”