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New report focuses on precision plant breeding

A report from the DCA – National Center for Food and Agriculture – focuses on opportunities and risks of the use of new plant breeding techniques in Danish agriculture, horticulture and forestry. A highly topical issue in the light of the European Court of Justice's ruling that the techniques should be regulated according to the full GMO legislation.

Mutation breeding with the new precision techniques can be seen as additional options to support already very efficient plant breeding. Photo: Colourbox

Plant breeding is a discipline where you aim continuously to develop new varieties of plants. This is done by using the variation in one species and combining the desired properties of this species to create a new and improved variety. There can be many purposes - from the purely aesthetic changes in potted plants to higher yields and greater resistance to disease in wheat.

In recent years, plant research has made significant progress, and a whole range of new precision plant breeding techniques are now available. But it has been widely discussed which status the new techniques should have in relation to EU’s GMO legislation. Researchers and the industry see great opportunities for agriculture with the new techniques and have been pushing for a clarification. The decision fell on 25 July this year, when the European Court of Justice ruled that the new techniques should be regulated according to the full GMO regulation.

But what is the difference between these new techniques and the general plant breeding, and what effect would they potentially have on Danish agriculture? The Danish Agriculture Agency has asked the DCA - National Center for Food and Agriculture – to deliver a response in the form of a knowledge synthesis, which has just been published as a DCA report (in Danish).

Faster and more accurate

In the report, ordered and prepared prior to the decision, a number of researchers from different departments at Aarhus University first review the background for plant breeding and compare the different technologies. They also provide concrete examples of precision plant breeding that allow plant breeders to develop new varieties in a manner similar to conventional breeding, but it is faster, often cheaper and more accurate.

One of the authors of the knowledge synthesis, Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University, Denmark, explains:

- Mutation breeding with the new precision technologies can be seen as additional options to support an already highly efficient plant breeding. In particular, the precision plant breeding, which induces one or few mutations at precise spots in a DNA, has great potential, as the number of unwanted mutations as we know it from the old-fashioned mutation breeding used today can be minimized. The old-fashioned techniques that today are exempted in the GM release directive typically produce thousands of mutations randomly spread in often inappropriate places in the genome, but this can be improved with the new technique.

In the report, the authors also focus on the specific challenges of Danish agriculture, horticulture and forestry, and come with an idea of how the EU's decision will affect Danish agriculture.

- If the new techniques had been exempted from the GMO regulation, we would expect Danish plant breeding companies to quickly start using the new methods. Even smaller plant breeders would be able to use the techniques, since they are neither costly nor require large investments, says Henrik Brinch-Pedersen, and states that now it is probably only the largest international plant breeding companies that will be able to bear the costs of developing new varieties with these technologies when subject to full GMO regulation.

In that case, it is hardly realistic for Danish plant breeding companies, and thus to a large extent for Danish agriculture, to take advantage of the new technologies. So we may end up with de facto monopoly for a few multinational companies, as we see it today with GMO, concludes Professor Brinch-Petersen.    

For further information, please contact

Professor MSO Henrik Brinch-Pedersen
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, Denmark
hbp@mbg.au.dk - +45 8715 8268