The Race to Create Super-Crops

The Race to Create Super-Crops

Posted on 30 Oct 2022

As part of our series of articles on the effect of climate change, we look at the recent push by the UK government to allow gene-edited crops to be grown in both England and Scotland that has met some resistance from the Scottish government. 

Gene editing is seen as a safer and less obtrusive alternative to the older technology of genetic modification. With gene editing, a crop has part of its DNA ‘snipped’ out. With gene modification, the crop’s DNA is modified by having a section of DNA added, sometimes from a different species.

The Scottish government’s stance is to protect the ‘purity’ of Scotland’s food and drinks sector. However the Scottish National Farmers union see that excluding gene-edited crops would put them at a considerable disadvantage to their English counterparts.

Researchers in Norfolk, UK have already created a new strain of tomatoes with higher vitamin-d content. This was achieved by ‘switching off’ a specific molecule in their genetic code. It is thought that these tomatoes could benefit people who are unable to obtain their vitamin d through exposure to sunlight. 

The process of gene editing is supported by a number of organizations, including the National Farmers Union. It is seen as a safe and effective way to create crops that provide a number of benefits, including having a higher vitamin content, as well as requiring less expensive fertilizers to produce the same yields.

European Union legislation has effectively banned both genetically modified and edited crops for over 25 years. However the UK government is suggesting that genetically edited crops are necessary to combat climate change, and are a far more cost effective, and less contentious alternative to the genetically modified varieties. The government argues that climate change has brought a need for far more drought resistant varieties that have a natural resistance to disease, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

The Global Story

The effect of climate change is not equal around the world. Areas in lower latitudes have experienced yield declines, yet those in higher latitudes have seen some increase in their annual crop yields. However according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the overall effect of climate change will disrupt and decrease the overall global food supply, and have the effect of increasing food prices. The process of desertification is already underway in areas close to the equator, and has the effect of reducing overall agricultural productivity and biodiversity. This is made worse by additional factors such as the use of unsustainable farming methods, and the pressures that increased populations bring. Although the extent of global aridity is not clear, it is thought that climate change will increase the salt content of the land, compounding its overall degradation.  

The abiotic stress that this process has created on plants can be reduced by gene-editing the plants to create varieties with higher stress tolerances.  

Rice is a staple food for half the world’s population, and has been gene-engineered to have greater water efficiency, meaning that some varieties could resist lack of water, as well as higher levels of heat. Other varieties of rice have been engineered to mature earlier, meaning that they can be grown in northern latitudes with longer day length and lower temperatures.

A Natural Alternative

Researchers at Penn State University have been investigating if it is possible to produce new varieties of crops that exhibit the same characteristics as the genetically modified and edited varieties, though produced in an entirely natural way. The researchers have been investigating the root systems of plants to understand more about how the nutrients are extracted. They understand that creating plants that are more efficient at extracting nutrients from the soil would benefit both the developed world as well as the majority world, where soils are often nutrient deficient. 

In 2015, the researchers were successful in creating a natural variety of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), that had root systems that allowed it to take up phosphorus from the top levels of soil in a far more efficient manner. Yields were increased by three times in experimental plots. This research is especially important in African countries, where the common bean is a major source of protein for the population. 

The next stage in the research is to create crops that are also drought tolerant. This has its own challenges as traditionally, drought resistant crops have deeper root systems, the opposite that is required for an efficient phosphorus uptake. 

This research is markedly different from the genetically based variety as it relies on laboriously examining the physical characteristics of a plant, and then selecting certain individual plants that are seen to be beneficial, such as the length of fine roots. It is also proving to produce quicker results than modifying a plant’s DNA, as it is not always obvious what needs to be changed considering the wide variety of external factors such as soil type, and climate.

Only time will tell where science and technology meet with governmental policy. Though with internationally agreed climate change target dates rapidly approaching, our agriculture strategy has never been so important.

In our next article we will examine how transport is adapting to climate change, and the drive towards fully electric vehicles. 

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