The Farming Social Hub - a voice for the farming community

Why gene editing is the good guy when it comes to healthy eating

Chris Guest is managing director of Cambridgeshire-based LS Plant Breeding. The plant breeding company is a subsidiary of German company Norddeutsche Pflanzenzucht Hans-Georg Lembke KG (NPZ). The company seeks to use scientific research and cutting edge technology to bring to market high yielding and resilient seed varieties in a range of crops, including Oil Seed Rape, pulses and cereals.

As a guest on episode 33 of the Farming Social Hub podcast (and on KL1 Radio), Guest spoke across a range of issues that will resonate with the farming community as they grapple with the dual challenge of rapid climate change and battling pests and disease, such as the Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle which is proving the nemesis of Oil Seed Rape producers.

No quick fix

In answer to the question about how long it takes to introduce a new variety of seed, such as a seed that is resilient to certain pests or certain climates, Guest said there was no “quick fix”. 

He explained that it can take up to 10 years to get a seed variety from the first original cross to the market. “It really does become a race,” he said, “With all the plant breeders trying to find the next best new variety.

“And, there are a lot of things going on in the background. Pre-breeding can add 10-20 years before inter-variety breeding starts. It is not a quick fix. If you look at some of the big cereal breeding programmes, they may be looking at 5,000 crosses a year, bringing 8 million progeny and that funnels down to three or four varieties up for recommendation some eight years later.”

Exciting developments

Guest was also keen to explain why gene editing was an exciting development within plant breeding. Gene editing technology was at a point where DNA could be snipped from a plant and then allowed to reform, with a slight change in its composition. 

“This means you can change the qualities within the plant. It doesn’t mean you can speed anything up, you still have to go through the generations of a pedigree breeding programme but what you can do, is increase the chance of getting the qualities that you want within the plant. 

“In my opinion, this is a real opportunity. Is there such a thing as tolerance to the stem beetle? We don’t know yet, but we can now look into it.”

Challenging public perception

One of the biggest challenges to people within the plant development sector is to persuade the public that gene editing is not producing ‘Frankenstein food”. Guest spoke of a development in Jaoan where tomatoes that contained a compound that helped prevent high blood pressure were being used to enhance the health benefits of all tomatoes. By introducing this particular strand of DNA into other tomato breeds, the health quality across the fruit was being heightened.

Guest explained that an unlikely source of increased public acceptance of GE was the Covid-19 outbreak. “We may see an increased acceptance because of the impact of Corona virus. Many of the vaccinations have been developed using gene editing. Now if people are happy to have a shot in the arm to protect against Corona virus, there may be a greater level of acceptance that food produced using GE is a good thing too.”

The case for more beans

When it comes to future trends, Guest was keen to talk about increased growth of pulses in the UK. It is a crop that has yet to really take off but, looking at food sustainability, looking at growing a variety of crops to improve soil structure, looking at something that suits our climate – it would seem beans and other pulses are a good crop to consider – both for human and livestock consumption. 

“Opportunities with pulses going forward is as a home-grown protein source. We can produce a significant volume of beans, for which we think there is a growing market. But to drive that development we do need some joined-up thinking between government, investors and the growers.”

And soya? Is there likely to be an opportunity to grow soya beans in the UK. This was something Guest had doubts about. “Climate change is the hardest bit to call if we are talking about soya. If we had a significant temperature rise in summer, then soya could come to the UK but at the moment it is too inconsistent. In the short term, in the UK, we should concentrate on the crops we are good at growing – cereals, oils need rape and pulses.”