Technology, Breeding 28 May 2014

Next generation
potato breeding

Plants that endure drought better or use fertiliser more efficient, a healthier purple tomato, and potatoes that have very low acrylamide and are resistant to Phytophthora. These are all examples of food enhancement through biotechnology. Innovative technologies give us new opportunities to meet consumer and customer demands. It can be discussed what new technologies should be considered as a GMO technique and what not.

Change to improve

Potato breeding has been a conservative field for over a century. However, this changed in the 1990s when Monsanto’s Naturemark led the potato biotechnology flow. This initial developmental spurt never really took off, it was not well explained to the consumer.

In goods like cars and phones consumers switch blindly to new technology, gadget driven as most are. Clearly, when it comes to food, we have to be extra careful. It is not common yet to tweet you’ve eaten ‘new food’. We not only have to comply with the regulations, we also have to meet the demands of the marketplace, making sure that everyone, from farmer to consumer, benefits.

Common crops: rice, corn, wheat and potatoes

Serving the next generation

Within our fragile balance for resources and changing climate we need to explore better ways of producing food and feed, other than the application of fertilisers and crop protection. The world is starting to accept the need for crop improvement innovations.

Due to its complex nature, potato breeding is a relatively slow and subjective process. However, new technologies do allow us to breed new varieties with a better shelf life, less waste in the food chain, and improved health quality. At the moment, new food and feed variations can be produced safely: new food can be tested on a commonly-agreed, scientific basis and comply with government regulations, giving consumers in the world a choice for their needs and their benefit.

“The world is slowly starting to accept the need for crop improvement innovations.”
More about developments in biotechnology
Expected soon

In the last 10-15 years, many innovations in breeding and crop produce have matured. Some of these innovations are still complex as these new generations of plants contain, for example, broad self-defence mechanisms based on new genes expressed outside the heritable plant genome. The potential for this type of innovation is high.

However, under present regulations, these are classed as genetically-modified crops.

Other innovations are far simpler, for example a mutation that could even be caused by natural sunlight. This is extremely close to a natural process.

A natural mutated apple and tulip: colour shifts are positive mutations.

Other forms of innovation are where biotechnology is used as an intermediary in the proces but is not present in the final variety or plant and food product.

A benefit of novel technologies is the considerable gain in breeding time when genes from naturally-crossable, wild potato species are put back into potato varieties.

To move forward more quickly, technology alone is not the answer, nor is it our holy grail. We have to be aware that plant breeding is the only way to reorganise a large set of genes and improve the genetic diversity that enables progress in yield and maintains the broad, biological diversity of crops. Technological tools and models that improve our ability to understand potato genetics and heritability are a first priority. These tools are the servants of our next generations.

More about governmental challenges
Changing governmental challenges

The concept behind governmental regulation in the field of food development and production is the need for it to be seen as solid and reliable and to show that consumers need not be concerned about the future of their food. Governments are continually challenged by company entrepreneurship in this field and legal efforts to find ways around the strict regulations. Nowadays, we have a better balance. Companies have learned to explain innovations in relation to  the consumer needs and global challenges we meet. Governments are good at finding secure political and professional methods to evaluate innovation in plants, animals, food and pharmaceuticals.

In some countries, governments decide on classification and regulation at the product level: if the product contains no gmo-trait, then that product is not categorised as gmo (gmo: organisms/plants with recombinant genes). Other governments, for example the European Union, base definitions on the development process. If gmo-technology is used somewhere in the process, then the product will be regulated as such. At present, all these innovations still have to be classified as gmo, however, regulatory authorities can see that some technologies are so close to natural or classic breeding processes that the gmo classification can be discussed.

The consumer has the right
to be able to make
a fair choice for food

Governments need to align developmental regulations, as food products travel across borders and continents. A novel breeding technology considered non-gmo in one part of the world can be shipped to a different geographic area where the product may be considered gmo, but is no longer traceable. Consumers should not be faced with surprises based on unaligned definitions: the consumer has the right to be able to make a fair choice for food: whether this is eco, common, new or gmo.

HZPC & Biotechnology

HZPC does not produce or commercialize gm products in any way. HZPC supports and encourages the use of technologies that almost imitate classical breeding or natural processes and share a same risk profile as classic breeding. One of these technologies is cisgenesis where naturally-crossable native genes are set in an existing variety instead of being selected by crossing. The difference is the location of the gene, not the presence. The European Food and Safety GMO panel concludes that similar hazards can be associated with cisgenic and conventionally-bred plants.

We encourage governments and regulatory bodies not to block innovative developments, so not only multinationals but also small and medium enterprises can work with these technologies. This could greatly progress plant breeding and may help secure stable food production for the future.