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First field trial of genome-edited wheat a success, ahead of Precision Breeding Bill

Agri-TechE Article
Research Digest
Nigel Halford Rothamsted Research genome-edited wheat trial
Prof Nigel Halford led the research at Rothamsted

The first European field trial of genome-edited wheat has shown a significant reduction of asparagine, with no effects on yield or nitrogen content of the grain.

The results, by Rothamsted Research are timely, as the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill moves to the final stages of its passage through Parliament (passed March 2023).  

Why is asparagine important?

Asparagine is essential for seed germination, however it is also associated with the development of Acrylamide – a potential carcinogen – when processed at high temperatures, such as in bread baking and toasting.

Since this discovery in 2002, the industry has been looking for ways to reduce its levels in food. The aim of the field trial was to determine whether a low asparagine phenotype of wheat was maintained when grown under field conditions, and to assess its performance with respect to emergence, yield, thousand grain weight (TGW) and composition.

Although bread is not the only carb to contain acrylamide – indeed its levels are lower than other cereal or potato products – its high consumption rate makes it one of the largest contributors to daily acrylamide intake.

The results

The trial was a success, with a 44-45% reduction in the free asparagine concentration of wheat compared with Cadenza.

Prof Nigel Halford, who led the research, said: “The study showed that gene editing to reduce asparagine concentration in the wheat grain works just as well in the field as under glass.

“This is important because the availability of low acrylamide wheat could enable food businesses to comply with evolving regulations on the presence of acrylamide in food without costly changes to production lines or reductions in product quality. It could also have a significant impact on dietary acrylamide intake for consumers.

“However, GE plants will only be developed for commercial use if the right regulatory framework is in place and breeders are confident that they will get a return on their investment in GE varieties.”

Precision Breeding Bill in final stages

The results of the trial are timely as the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will make provision for the release and marketing of GE crops, is in the final stages of its passage through Parliament.

The Bill will now go to the Commons for consideration of Lords amendments on Monday 6th March.

The paper 

Field assessment of genome-edited, low asparagine wheat: Europe’s first CRISPR wheat field trial, Sarah Raffan, Joseph Oddy, Andrew Mead, Gary Barker, Tanya Curtis, Sarah Usher, Christopher Burt, Nigel G. Halford, 09 February 2023

Rothamsted Research

More about Advanced Breeding.

New business models needed to support farmer adoption of agri-tech

Agri-TechE Article
Muddy Machines' Sprout v2-8
Muddy Machines’ Sprout v2-8

Robotic technology to help with harvesting is among the technologies highlighted at the NFU Conference as eligible for a grant. However, developers of robotics say the focus on equipment purchases in Farming Equipment and Technology Fund 2023 (FETF23) may not be the best model to support the adoption of agri-tech on-farm. 

Muddy Machines has developed a robotic platform that provides automated harvesting of asparagus. The equipment is flexible to enable the use of multiple tools for harvesting different crops and is to be made available on a service model.

There is just a 12-week window for harvesting and asparagus grows rapidly and shoots sporadically during this season, so precision and timing is vital, as John Chinn of Cobrey Farms, the UK’s largest growers of asparagus, explains. “It’s not about cutting costs of labour, but our inability to find it. We have a short season and this technology is vital if we are to harvest the crop.”

Muddy Machines developed its Sprout robot through trials on Chinn’s land. He added: “The Sprout machine is very impressive. It takes itself up and down the rows of asparagus and harvests it and puts it in a tray without causing any damage to the spears.”

Muddy Machines was founded in 2020 by Christopher Chavasse and Florian Richter with a vision to sustainably solve labour issues in farming with robots. It has developed a robotic platform that can deploy a variety of harvest tools in specialty field crops.

New business models needed

FETF23 enables funding for a defined list of equipment, but Florian Richter voices his reservations.

Muddy Machines presentation
Muddy Machines took part in the REAP 2021 Start-Up Showcase. Florian Richter, Founder and CEO talks to the chair, Nicole Sadd of Rothamsted Enterprises.

He says: “I’m disappointed to see that this scheme, again, seems only aimed at covering equipment purchases. This really only benefits the tried and tested, incumbent OEMs.

“If you look at cutting-edge agri-robotics technology, most of these machines are provided ‘as a service’. This ensures fast adoption on farms while ensuring that the provider is constantly on hand to ensure productivity and up-time.

“Moreover, these machines can then be re-used on other farms throughout the season instead of sitting idle in the shed.

“The FETF23 scheme should really also cover ‘Harvest as a Service’ or ‘Robotics as a Service’ propositions.”

The need for new business models to increase farmer adoption of technology was highlighted in a recent McKinsey Report.