The EU is considering relaxing its rules to allow gene editing, something the Scottish Government remains against. Here, Colin Campbell, chief executive at The James Hutton Institute, explains the science and what it could mean for addressing the challenges posed by the climate crisis in providing healthy food for all

In an era of climate change, a nature crisis and rising food production costs, securing a steady food supply chain is critical for the future. At The James Hutton Institute, we recognise the urgency of this challenge and continue to develop pioneering scientific solutions to address these challenges.

We use a variety of pioneering technologies to explore the potential to transform agricultural practices for the better, and one of them is precision breeding, also known as gene editing (GE).

Breeding new varieties of plants is a complicated process that requires a substantial investment of skills, labour, material resources, money, and time. Most traits are complex and involve many genes to produce the ideal plant type. We must grow thousands of populations over many years and it can take up to 15 years to make a new variety available at a scale that has an impact.

One of the most significant advantages of GE is that the technique can facilitate production of new varieties more quickly and efficiently, allowing us to respond more rapidly to environmental challenges. As Scotland and other regions face the prospect of warmer, wetter climates and an increase in pests and diseases, the agricultural sector needs agile solutions.

It’s important to differentiate GE from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While GMOs involve introducing DNA from other species, GE does not. It is more akin to an accelerated version of the breeding techniques farmers have been using for millennia.

GE allows scientists to precisely target specific sections of a plant’s DNA, and alter traits such as disease resistance without affecting other parts of the DNA. Unlike traditional plant breeding, which involves crossing parent plants and screening thousands of seedlings for changes in genetics, GE offers a fast-track approach to developing new crop varieties.

Our research on potatoes has proven that we can obtain pest-resistant spuds that avoid using synthetic chemicals, and can also grow well in warmer environments. For example, our Quickgro project allowed us to breed five new varieties suited to Sub Saharan Africa. This work involved trialling selected genotypes in different growing environments, validating the results of our discoveries, and confirming the identification of the genes responsible for traits such as heat tolerance, cooking time and disease resistance. These were not gene edited but bred using conventional approaches over a long time. However this knowledge of what works well can now be transferred to other types of potato. For example, the gene that controls cooking time can be modified by GE in commercially successful varieties such as Maris piper, to create potatoes that cook in 25-50% of the time – saving fuel and introducing convenience for time-poor consumers.

The precision and efficacy of this technique has been demonstrated through extensive research, and plants that have been edited in a particular trait by GE often cannot be distinguished from those containing the same trait bred conventionally.

In fact, it may not be noticeable at all to consumers that the product on the shelf has been gene edited. It will taste and look the same, but has been bred to grow faster, be more pest resistant and uses less energy to cook - and this has taken a fraction of the time to do than by conventional means. The consumer sees no difference in taste, but they save energy cooking it; the grower has saved money and so the food is cheaper, and society has benefited as we have saved waste and benefitted nature and our living environment.

Of course, GE can be used to meet the consumers preferences too. For example, berries may be bigger, juicier or sweeter as a result; it entirely depends on the traits being modified. It can also be used to enrich and increase nutrient density and health promoting natural products in the food. For example, creating barley and cereals higher in health promoting natural “beta glucan” which counters gut problems including cancer. It can also produce soft fruit with higher natural products, such as the red and blue anthocyanins - more widely known as antioxidants- which are known to be anti-carcinogenic.

The last few years have been incredibly difficult for many growers across the UK, because of the rising costs and volatility of demand due to ever increasing (cheaper to produce) imports.

Fertiliser, energy and labour costs are all jostling for pole position with the weather as the most unpredictable issues affecting growers today. At the same time, natural resources and the key beneficial organisms such as pollinators and natural pest control agents which support crop production are declining in abundance and availability.

These significantly higher costs are reducing profit margins, which are already tight for some crops, and has been a major factor in generating greater interest amongst growers for crops which can grow more efficiently with less input. These threats have the potential to undermine local production and local food manufacturing and so decrease our food security.

With the introduction of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023, crops derived through precision breeding are no longer subject to the same regulations as GMOs in England. The EU is also now considering GE to be substantially different from GM, and many parts of the world also accept this. All new crop varieties, whether conventionally bred or with new technologies, must still be subject to rigorous scientific evaluations and field trials. The new regulations in England and the EU, facilitates these essential evaluations, paving the way for more climate-positive and economically viable crop varieties.

The Hutton is recognised as being world-leaders in this area of science and research; where we study land, soils, water, environment and how these impact upon, and are affected by, people and communities. We realise there must be benefits all round to nature, climate and people, but we are patently lurching into ever unreliable weather and climate breakdown and time is not on our side.

GE is not about a new technology to continue the existing systems of production, but a new tool to enable new systems of production that are kinder to nature, tackle climate change and sustain livelihoods not just in the rural sector but across the food supply system. We need be clear about what we want to achieve, and not reject any approach that can help.

Colin Campbell is Chief Executive at The James Hutton Institute