Gene editing could boost UK’s virus-plagued sugar beet industry, country’s agriculture minister says

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

[British farming and environment minister George] Eustice told the annual conference of the National Farmers Union [on February 23] that the sugar beet sector has faced major problems this year with virus yellows which is spread by aphids and can severely cut beet yields and decrease sugar content.

Gene-editing aims to accelerate changes which might take place naturally, whereas genetic modification (GM) can involve the transfer of genetic material from one species to another which could not occur using conventional breeding techniques.

“A lot of the solution to some of the technical challenges like virus yellows do lie in using faster more targeted breeding techniques where you can take a trait that might exist in a non commercial variety of sugar beet or even a fodder beet and move it across into sugar beet so you’ve got natural resistance,” Eustice said.

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Two environmental groups, Beyond GM and Slow Food UK, have been lobbying supermarkets to refuse to stock unlabelled gene-edited foods.

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“It is a choice for individual retailers but I do think they are wrong on this for an important reason. Gene-editing is really just a more targeted, faster approach to move traits from one plant to another but within the same species so in that respect it is no different from conventional breeding,” [Eucstice] said.

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