New biotech could lead to big productivity gains if we have the foresight to embrace it, says NFU Chief Science & Regulatory Affairs adviser Helen Ferrier.
Agritech isn’t all about robots, soil sensors, and data platforms. Breeding for improved varieties has been shown to account for two-thirds of the productivity gains achieved in UK arable crops during the past two decades. And even more, could be achieved in coming years if the application of a suite of new biotechnologies to agriculture and horticulture is embraced.
Partnership and collaboration needed
I was asked to chair a panel of industry, scientific, and political leaders discussing ‘Global growth in genomics: Securing and unlocking the power of gene editing.’ This was one of the most anticipated sessions of the summit, given how rapidly this area is developing around the world, both in terms of the technology and also the regulatory landscape.
These new precision breeding techniques are seen as having significant potential to tackle the biggest and most urgent existential challenges of our agrifood system: climate change, environmental sustainability, and nutritional health.
My panel represented interests from right across the sector: from academic research, policy, and politics to commercial companies working in a range of markets and countries, from large-scale production agriculture to specialist and tropical crops.
“The potential benefits of new precision breeding techniques like gene editing will only be realized if seed companies see the UK as somewhere where it is productive to invest.”
NFU Chief Science & Regulatory Affairs Adviser Helen Ferrier
We heard from George Eustice, Conservative MP and former Defra Secretary of State; Gilad Gershon, CEO of leading gene-editing company Tropic; Prof Jonathan Jones, leading plant geneticist and pathologist at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich; Todd Rands, President & CEO of food ingredients company Elo Life Systems and, from the US, Tom Greene, Senior Director for External Innovation Investment at global seeds and crop protection company Corteva Agriscience.
Partnership and collaboration were recurring themes at the summit. Technologies often emerge from the research sector and spin out into start-ups and SMEs, with small companies then providing the specialist equipment and expertise that can be scaled up using the standard platforms and markets created by the big companies.
The collaboration between Tropic and Corteva announced at the summit is a great example: the pioneering Norwich-based start-up Tropic will apply its gene-silencing technology platform to the corn and soybean portfolio of one of the world’s biggest seed companies, Corteva, to increase disease resistance and reduce environmental impact at scale. This follows Tropic’s strategic collaboration with British Sugar to use the same breeding platform to tackle virus yellows.
It is clear from the companies on the panel that for our farmers – and for our environment and consumers – the potential benefits of new precision breeding techniques like gene editing will only be realized if seed companies see the UK as somewhere where it is productive to invest.
They need to see a consistent and reliable path to commercialization, which requires not just a successful research and development pipeline but also an enabling regulatory landscape. This means that the UK could be a global leader, but only if the politicians and decision-makers get it right now.
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