Gene editing: a new set of tools for sugar growers

Sugar beet coming through_42273

NFU and NFU Sugar have today submitted their responses to the government consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies. Michael Sly, NFU Sugar chair, reflects on the submission and next steps.

Sugar beet is an important crop grown on around 100,000ha in the UK, but it faces enormous challenges because of pests and diseases. For the approximately 3000 growers with sugar beet as an integral part of their arable rotation, crop losses from the virus yellows disease were as high as 80 percent in the 2020/21 season, with devastating consequences for farming families.

New breeding techniques

Our sugar beet sector urgently requires fit for purpose, science-led regulation to pave the way for a sustainable path to tackling virus yellows disease. UK adoption of new breeding techniques will provide an important opportunity for the sugar beet sector to reduce the impact of pests and diseases, while driving improved yield over time.

For growers like me, trying to decide what crop to grow and how to plan and implement integrated pest management (IPM), not knowing how or if they will be able to control pests poses a significant problem.

Uncertainty for growers

Currently, sugar beet growers have just one on-label approved plant protection product to control aphids (the vector of virus yellows disease). The sector, therefore, faces great uncertainty each year about how significant the pest threat will be, and if or how growers will be able to control the pest problems they face.

Consequently, the sector relies on the emergency authorisation process to access the plant protection products that growers require to protect their crops, but only using them if clear and defined thresholds are met. The emergency authorisation process is costly and time-consuming for all involved and creates uncertainty for growers. For growers like me trying to decide what crop to grow and how to plan and implement integrated pest management (IPM) not knowing how or if they will be able to control pests poses a significant problem.

Targeted gene editing

Using conventional breeding to find a genetic solution to virus yellows disease is difficult because three different viruses are responsible for the disease. Trying to identify resistance genes in wild relatives, which can then be bred into conventional varieties, is a slow, long-winded process. A targeted gene editing approach provides the opportunity to speed this process up, potentially providing a future solution to virus yellows.

In addition to addressing diseases caused by viruses, gene editing also has the potential to help provide solutions to pests and diseases where plant protection products are not available, for example, fungal diseases such as, Cercospera and pests, such as free-living nematodes. Gene editing also has the potential to help address issues such as drought tolerance and improved nitrogen use efficiency.

Access to technology

Though the correct regulation of gene editing, both the food system and the environment should benefit: the former through improvements in food security, the latter through increasing biodiversity and reducing climate change. An example from sugar production is that it takes one third less water to produce sugar from beet rather than cane. If we can produce more sugar from higher-yielding genetically engineered (GE) sugar beet, we could reduce cane sugar imports. Therefore, it is important that the UK has access to this technology to allow us to compete with countries where GE technologies are already routinely used.

However, we do not think biotechnology is a silver bullet. It is important to note that gene editing does not negate the need for plant protection products completely as the nature of pests and diseases evolve over time. Rather it forms part of a wider, integrated solution to the problems the sugar beet sector faces. New breeding techniques should be seen as part of a broad set of new tools and approaches that enable UK farmers to take a more sustainable path, including IPM and resource use efficiency.

Support for gene editing

This consultation is an important step towards sustainable solutions to the key issues facing the UK sugar beet industry. NFU Sugar, representing the 3000 sugar beet growers in the UK, supports the adoption of gene editing in agriculture. We urge regulators to ensure legislation surrounding genetic technologies is fit for purpose, transparent, science-based, adaptable, and aligned with international definitions.

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