The an­swer to world food shortages?

Argyllshire Advertiser - - NEWS -

The his­tory of crop im­prove­ment by ge­netic mu­ta­tion goes back cen­turies. The ini­tial slow process of se­lec­tive breed­ing was en­hanced in the 1950s us­ing ir­ra­di­a­tion and toxic chem­i­cals to in­crease mu­ta­tion rates. Then in the 1990s, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion (GM) al­lowed ran­dom in­tro­duc­tion of pieces of DNA, of­ten from for­eign species, into the DNA of plants and an­i­mals. The pos­si­bil­ity that GM might cre­ate rogue species led in 2001 to an EU di­rec­tive that ef­fec­tively banned the pro­duc­tion of GM crops. But this di­rec­tive specif­i­cally ex­cluded or­gan­isms pro­duced by ra­di­a­tion- or chem­i­cal-in­duced mu­ta­tions be­cause these were tried and tested tech­niques that pro­duced many of to­day’s edi­ble crops – wheat for ex­am­ple.

A re­cently dis­cov­ered gene-edit­ing tech­nique called CRISPR, has vast po­ten­tial for creat­ing de­signer crops that could be more pro­duc­tive, adapt­able to ex­treme cli­mates, re­sis­tant to dis­eases, more nu­tri­tious, less al­ler­genic and non-car­cino­genic. CRISPR is a sys­tem of en­zymes used by bac­te­ria to fight off in­vad­ing viruses.

Now sci­en­tists have adapted it to pro­vide a highly-tar­geted method for al­ter­ing gene se­quences. This is faster, cheaper and more ac­cu­rate than tra­di­tional GM. And, cru­cially, it does not in­tro­duce for­eign DNA into the host species. For this rea­son, many sci­en­tists equate its ac­tion with the EU-ap­proved ra­di­a­tion- and chem­i­cal-in­duced mu­ta­tions.

So, the ques­tion the EU Court of Jus­tice had to con­sider was: is CRISPR a form of GM or more aligned to chem­i­cal- and ra­di­a­tion-in­duced mu­ta­ge­n­e­sis? On July 25 this year, the court de­cided that CRISPR in­volves ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion and should there­fore be sub­ject to the 2001 EU di­rec­tive.

This rul­ing is wel­come news for cer­tain en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions with con­cerns about re­lease of GM or­gan­isms into the en­vi­ron­ment.

But it is a ma­jor blow for sci­en­tists in­tent on im­prov­ing world crop pro­duc­tion, as it pre­vents any EU com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ments us­ing CRISPR.

Now multi­na­tion­als are likely to move else­where, but maybe once Brexit is re­alised the UK will join the US, Canada, Ja­pan and sev­eral South Amer­i­can coun­tries in em­brac­ing this new tech­nol­ogy.

Ma­nip­u­lat­ing crops for our ben­e­fit is noth­ing new.

DOROTHY H CRAW­FORD

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