Removing regulatory obstacles to a plant-bred future

FEATURED SPEAKER Future of Nutrition Summit 
Plant breeding technologies are a unique tool to help tailor crops for better yield results and lessen the environmental impact of agriculture, and a recent Eurobarometer survey has indicated that most consumers are not particularly concerned about the latest gene technology advancement called gene editing. Dr Dennis Eriksson’s research at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences focuses on minimising regulatory bottlenecks, facilitating access to plant genetic resources and looking at issues around the intellectual property rights of plant breeders. He predicts that customers will be attracted by the new product possibilities new plant-breeding techniques will allow.

Dr. Dennis Eriksson

What kind of research are you currently involved in regarding new plant breeding techniques?
“I am currently looking at how to avoid regulatory bottlenecks for innovations in plant research and plant breeding. My main focus is the biosafety legislation for products of precision breeding (transgenesis, gene editing) but I am also looking at the issues of access and benefit-sharing for plant genetic resources and intellectual property such as plant breeders´ rights. I am trying to analyse and develop regulatory options that will promote innovation in a safe, responsible and sustainable manner that takes a variety of perspectives into account.”

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What are the new plant breeding techniques and what do you predict could be possible in a few years’ time?
“The latest advancements in breeding include technologies for generating genetic variation in a controlled, safe and premeditated manner, and technologies for more efficient screening and selection of genetic and biometric variation. In a few years’ time we will have an even higher capacity to tailor resilient crops that fit local agroecosystems, mitigate climate change, are resistant to pests and diseases, appeal to specific consumer preferences, are highly nutritious and with a stable yield.”

Why do we need new breeding techniques and how does it affect the environment? Are they an answer to the sustainability issue?
“An improvement in our capacity to develop good crops (that are environmentally friendly, nutritious, and high-yielding) is ONE of many ways we need to work to move our society towards sustainability. People have been breeding crops for at least 10-12 millennia but until the 20th century it was a very slow and inefficient process and, as a result, the crops were very poor. We must never forget that plant breeding feeds people. Without science-based and efficient plant breeding, so many more people would be starving in our world. The latest technological advancements add to the breeders´ toolbox and allows them to work more efficiently. The breeders could of course limit themselves to only the older technologies, such as cross breeding and radiation-induced mutagenesis, but progress would be slower and agriculture would keep its dependence on agrochemical inputs such as pesticides. Having said that, I need to repeat that breeding is of course only one of many necessary things we need to work with to achieve a more sustainable agriculture.”

What will new breeding techniques allow in terms of change in nutritional value or other aspects of edible plants?
“There is, and has always been, a great symbiosis between fundamental plant research and plant breeding. Research leads to new discoveries and more knowledge about genetic and biochemical pathways in the plant cells – and this knowledge is being applied by breeders who use it to improve the way the crops grow in the field. To name but a few examples; researchers are currently developing gluten-free wheat that is suitable for people with coeliac disease, and purple tomato with high levels of very healthy anthocyanins. Give it a few more years, and a more innovation-friendly atmosphere in the EU, and we may find these on the market.”

Who is the owner of the new breed and how can farmers get access to it? Will consumers accept these new breeds?
It all depends. Regularly it would be a company, but sometimes breeding is also carried out by publicly funded institutes and/or in partnerships. The farmers get access to the new varieties if they are on the market, otherwise they can´t. Regarding consumer acceptance, there is a lot of misconceptions. Honestly, when they are in the supermarket people do not care that much about the breeding process. People care about quality, they care about the price, they care about the environment and they care about the product being safe to consume. If a product fulfils these criteria, then it does not matter much which particular method the breeder used to bring about the seeds that the farmers will plant in the soil and later harvest. A recent Eurobarometer survey has indicated exactly this: that most consumers are not particularly concerned about the latest gene technology advancement called gene editing."

There is a decreasing number of plant species, how can we safeguard the plant diversity and what is being done in this regard?
“It is important to collect and maintain plant species and crop landraces in germplasm banks. This is being done already, such as with the CGIAR centres across the world, however further investment is of the utmost importance not to risk losing more diversity. I also need to counter one misconception though. Sometimes people believe that modern breeding and agriculture have substantially decreased crops’ genetic diversity. However, this is not always true. It depends on which crop and which region you look at. I can add that each year more than 2,000 new crop varieties gain plant breeders´ rights in the European Union and are registered in the seed catalogues – a clear indication of how plant breeding can actually increase genetic diversity.”

Don’t miss Dr Dennis Eriksson’s presentation on ‘CRISPR-cas: the capacity of modern-day plant breeders to improve the nutritional quality of crops’ during the Future of Nutrition Summit on 2nd December.