Gene editing can bring clear benefits to the UK food and farming industry as UK agricultural moves through its fourth revolution.
But confusing gene editing with genetic modification was dangerous, speakers at both the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) heard.
US-based communication specialist Julie Borlaug, whose grandfather Norman Borlaug was a Nobel prize winning plant breeder, said: “Firstly we have to make sure GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and gene editing are not in the same playbook.
“They are very different and should not be conflated in debate. If we want to make progress we have to embrace gene editing and we have to take it to the farmer or it will not work.”
Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, said Roslin Institute researchers were already using gene editing to breed pigs resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome and academics at John Innes were developing key traits for wheat as part of their Designing Future Wheat programme.
He said the issue around the technology was when the science was confused with ‘values’, or how it could be used, and the two had to be treated separately.
For example modern maize ‘was about as genetically modified as it can be and that has been done by breeding [hybrid varieties]’, said Sir Mark, adding that the process had been applied to crops and livestock as they had evolved over the years.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove said agriculture was facing its fourth revolution and told both conferences that gene editing holds out the promise of accelerating the gains secured through selective breeding in the past.
Speaking at the ORFC he said: “It is about embracing some technologies people in this room would be suspicious of [gene editing]. We need to follow the science. Science shows us what chemical fertilisers are doing to our soils, that is undeniable, but we need to look at the scientific options,” he said.
Challenged as to whether gene editing placed the power in the hands of a limited number of companies, Mr Gove was robust in his answer.
“There are ethical questions about cartelisation. That is a challenge, but gene editing has the potential to help us significantly. I want to be informed by the science on the way forward.”
Speaking about gene editing at the OFC, Prof Cristobal Uauy, project leader in crop genetics at John Innes, added: "We need proportionate science based regulation to promote innovation that allows this science to get to your farms.”
Ms Bourlag called on the industry to raise its level of communications in order to beat the ‘anti-science lobby’s messaging’.