Countering the impact of climate change through new breeding techniques

It is imperative that we breed new varieties of plants to make agriculture more sustainable, given increasing food demand and a warming climate. Until recently, mutations and classical breeding techniques were sufficient to breed new varieties. At the end of the 20th century, tissue culture, gene transfer and other molecular biologic developments entered the picture. In the past decade, a variation on mutation has emerged. We now see thousands of new plant varieties that were bread using artificial mutation with X or gamma rays or colchicine application. A mutation is a spontaneous or purposeful change in one of the genes of a living organism.

Since 2010, new plant varieties have been developed in molecular laboratories using new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), including tilling, protoplast fusion, cisgenesis, oligonucleotide techniques, CRISPR-Cas9 and Talen, with CRISPR-Cas9 being more prominent than the rest. With these methods, there is no transfer of a gene from a foreign species like there is with GMOs. On the contrary, new varieties are created by silencing the target gene with the help of transient DNA-cutting enzymes. These applications can increase or decrease the effect of a gene. We can call this process artificial micro-mutation. Naturally, these methods can be applied to plants with mapped genes.

What’s most interesting is that these methods do not require hundreds of millions of dollars for registration, as is the case with GMOs. Therefore, gene-edited seeds can reach the marked faster than other varieties. Additionally, the cost of these techniques is only one tenth of GMO processes, resulting in easy variety development by small and medium-sized plant breeding companies, universities and public institutions.

Governments can help or hinder progress

In the US, gene editing is regulated as a conventional plant breeding system. Of the 23 candidate varieties of the more recent registration applications, only three of them belong to multinational seed companies. 20 of them emerged from small-to-mid size enterprises or new entrepreneurs. Breeding new varieties will not be in the hands of multinational companies exclusively; small enterprises will also take part in plant breeding activities, which is crucial for food security in light of climate change.

Image Credit: iStock/Zerbor

Unfortunately, these new plant breeding techniques are effectively banned in Europe. Following a July 2018 decision by the European Court of Justice, gene-edited crops will be regulated like GMOs. According to EU law, then, “conventional” mutagenesis using ionizing radiation or DNA-damaging chemicals, which generates thousands of mutant varieties, is safe. However, specific changes made to an organism’s DNA with one of these NPBTs is cause for regulatory alarm.

The ban was implemented at a time when global warming, drought and disease are seriously threatening the world’s food safety. Farmers around the world are in desperate need of new cultivars resistant to these environmental stresses. The cost to register any new variety in Europe will be around $150 million, so small and medium-sized plant breeding companies and universities will not be able to enter the plant breeding business.

Related article:  Nigeria could lead Africa to innovative future in agriculture by approving GMO cowpea

Experts have voiced a number of concerns about the regulatory status of gene-edited plants in Europe. They warn that these restrictions on crop biotechnology will cause funding for plant breeding research in Europe to dry up. The fact that NPBTs won’t be included in the Horizon type framework projects, which bring together science bodies and private companies, will create a barrier for EU firms who want to enter tomorrow’s seed market. This will force a migration of scientists and the closure of laboratories around the continent. In sum, Europe will miss out on the next decade of innovations in food and agriculture.

In contrast, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment is approaching this issue very differently. In late August, Japanese regulators said that unless the product contains DNA from other species, registration procedures will not fall into the category of GMOs.

Want to follow the latest news and policy debates over agricultural biotechnology and biomedicine? Subscribe to our free newsletter.

Gene editing: The future of plant breeding

Let’s take a look at the economic contributions of the varieties developed by classical mutation breeding. This method, which was introduced in the middle of the 20th century, generated 3,275 new plant varieties. These new mutant varieties were used as parents in the development of a large number of varieties. For example, in Italy new varieties developed from mutant Capelli durum wheat were planted in half of Italy’s durum wheat fields in the 1970s. China is also using mutation breeding effectively. 30% of the registered 3,275 new world mutant varieties belong to China. The country also uses space for conventional mutation. A total of 230 mutant varieties have been registered via space breeding research center’s mutation projects in the last 30 years.

NPBTs are expected to continue this trend of innovation in plant breeding. In the last 10 years, scientists have used these techniques to develop seedless tomatoes, low-fat soy (expected to reach the market in 2019), easier to digest alfalfa and herbicide-resistant rice and flax. A dozen more gene-edited crops are in the pipeline, including high-fiber wheat and potatoes that stay fresh longer, better-tasting tomatoes, apples that don’t brown, drought-resistant soybeans and potatoes better suited for cold storage. These will not only benefit plant breeders and consumers, they will also encourage further crop development. As the globe continues to warm, breeding new crop varieties will be essential to achieving food security.

Nazimi Acıkgoz is an emeritus plant breeding professor from Ege University, Izmir, Turkey and a science writer focusing on climate change and food security, plant breeding and agrobiotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @nazimiacikgoz

This article originally ran at BlogActiv as New Plant Breeding Technics Have Started to Bear Fruit and has been republished here with permission.

58 thoughts on “Countering the impact of climate change through new breeding techniques”

          • Lame. Monsanto highly publicized their advanced genetic traits, that would save farmers money. You seem to be a real latecomer to this discussion….

          • SO WHAT!
            That doesn’t help me at the supermarket, when I want to know which is contaminated and which is not! You can’t tell by looking at them,.. or it,… or whatever. I never buy strawberries in the store. They are always these everbearing variety that are modified to look really good on the outside and they travel well but they always have a punky texture and no flavour. I wait for the local season when I can get the real thing.

          • They were quite well publicized. You just do pay attention to news about advanced crop breeding. That is clear from some of your comments.
            Most people don’t pay attention to this stuff and, as a result, aren’t very well educated on it.

          • That is what we have product labeling for but these crooks have manipulated the system so that they don’t have to be labeled. They knew that the public wouldn’t have accepted it, so they bribed and coerced to avoid labeling.

          • Actually, no… we have product labeling to convey meaningful differences in a product. And I just LOVE how you assume that because you don’t like something it must have happened illegally. What a tool.

    • I am sure that you don’t work for free. Farmers are in business to provide food, they must also make a living to provide for their families, I could go on so unless you want to buy a patch of land and live only on what you can produce otherwise give your head a shake and get real.

        • Correct. Nobody has to grow GM crops, and you don’t have to buy them. However, at present, without specific GMO labels, you do have to inform yourself. Virtually all products containing added sugar that don’t advertise non-GMO or cane sugar are made with GMO corn or beet sugar. It’s chemically identical to the sugar from non-GMO crops, but if it’s important to you, you shouldn’t buy Coke, Pepsi, sweetened breakfast cereals, most candies, doughnuts, etc., etc. Suit yourself!

          • Quite the contrary. Identical ingredients, whatever plants they are derived from, should not, in my opinion, have to specify their origin. Corn sugar is corn sugar. Calling anybody who disagrees with you a crook is pretty much a Trump agenda. Is this your intention, or would you prefer facts and science?

          • I would prefer common sense and science. If they were the same, then they shouldn’t have been so afraid to say so. I don’t care if you accept GMOs, that is your prerogative, I however, do not trust them or their products and would like to be able to avoid them whenever possible but I in no way wish to restrict your use of the same…

          • Since you claim to prefer common sense and science, please use them. Information is already available to you to avoid all GMO products, and choose only non-GMOs. The easiest way to do this is look at the labels. Organic and non-GMO means, for both, non-GMO. Buy those. Never buy processed foods without these labels. Never eat at McDonalds or other fast-food chains. Never eat out, unless the restaurant says “organic foods” prominently. But of course you should also know that most fresh foods are not GMO, so you should not be concerned about them. There are no GMO meat products except salmon, which you are unlikely to find in your supermarket. Avoiding GMO foods is easy if you are informed.

        • Half of your comment is correct, you don’t have to buy them, BUT orange crops, especially in the US are dying from greening disease and the only answer currently available is genetic engineering, similarly bananas are dying from a fusarium disease, UG99 a strain of rust threatens wheat, late blight of potatoes can easily be reduced significantly by moving a resistant gene from a non edible wild potato. Be careful about what you wish for!

    • OMG, we mustn’t use genetics! We should have told that to the Mayans and Incas thousands of years ago! We don’t need no stinking corn and potatoes! And throw out wheat, barley, rice, apples, and most every other plant in the supermarket!

          • I understand. This is not a simple topic. Below you have suggested that you should have used the term “gene splicing.” But this is incomplete. New genetic manipulation methods use gene silencing or enhancing technology. No new genes are introduced, but specific traits in the crops are accentuated or reduced. Thus a tomato could be sweeter, an apple or a potato will not brown as fast, and many other modest changes are coming to the marketplace. It’s hard to keep up.

          • I don’t know the nuts and bolts of genetic manipulation nor do I care. I just don’t want that crap in my shopping cart.
            There are far too many ignorant and greedy fools out there pretending they know what they are doing. None of them can be trusted and there is no need to trust them. There is plenty of biodiversity out there and natural breading works just fine, it just offends big business because they can’t patent and control it. So tough!

      • “We should have told that to the Mayans and Incas thousands of years ago!”


        Mr. Lao is very proud of not knowing anything about anything…

        Of course, no one could live without “genetics”, and few people could live without genetics we’ve tampered with.

        There is a bit of GMO science denial in communities that accept the reality of climate change!

        I’d be willing to bet Mr. Lao denies all of it, though…

  1. G.N.Mitra
    While developing new crop varieties using modern technologies, the breeders should take into account the aesthatic sense of the consumers. An odd size, different colour, unacceptable flavour etc. will make the consumer suspicious about the quality and possible presence of toxic compounds in the new variety of the crop. Many of the edible crops now grown in differnt countries around the world may not withstand the stress due to climate change. New varrieties of crops need to developed, which will withstand the climate change environment and give as much yield as of now or more to meet the food requirement of an increasing population. As during green revolution, we need to develop new varieties of every crop, compatible to changed climate around the world using every technology avialble now and new technologies yet to be devloped.

    • Nahhhh … All we need to do, is increase the atmospheric CO2 level to about 1500 ppm and the ecosystem will provide everything we need for twice the global population..

      The problem is, we need to get serious because at this rate, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels long before we get there and it would be nice if we didn’t have start slashing and burning all the forests. But whatever. We need to stop fearing change and renewal and understand that that, IS what it is all about. We just need to understand that nature is constantly renewing itself, that is what keeps it and/or makes it so robust.

      • “at about 1500 ppm the ecosystem will provide everything we need for twice the global population….” Perhaps, but during the transition, half the existing population has to move or starve. The predominant scenario, I think, is that they will starve.

          • 1500 ppm C02 would be far higher than seen in millions of years, if ever, and would result in sea levels over 100 feet higher than now, because of global warming. This is what the scientific models are telling us. If there is contrary evidence, you could present it, but I suspect that your grasp of climate change calculations is like your grasp of genetics – totally absent.

          • Yep, this has to be a child, but I’m changing my mind about the gender. This is just another obnoxious little boy.

    • “Many of the edible crops now grown in differnt countries around the world may not withstand the stress due to climate change.”

      I think that’s the main issue. The only reason why Bangladesh is so densely populated is because of how amazingly productive their farmland is… and every last bit of it is going away because of climate change. They need to get on salt-tolerant crops ASAP…

  2. New crop varieties need to be developed, which will utilise the positive effect of high CO2 concentration, negative effects of higher ambient temperature and unpredicatable weather, such as excessive or deficient rainfall, cyclones and any other unpredicatabel natural disasters. The best way is to develop crop plants with short duration, photo-insensitive,shorter plant height with stronger and thick leaves and stems, which can give reasonable higher yields. Once the crop is destroyed one can plant the same crop anew. .

Leave a Comment

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.

Send this to a friend