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ATW23: Gene editing and genetic modification  

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

At the 6th Agri-Tech Week event of 2023, hosted by Rothamsted Research, discussions centred around genome engineering, precision breeding tools, and the commercialisation of scientific advancements.

The world’s oldest agri-research station excels in newest breeding tools 

Rothamsted has always been in the vanguard of GM technology, and it is embracing the new precision breeding tools of gene-editing as well.

Its Genome-Editing Unit can handle a wide range of crops including wheat, rice, oilseed rape, tomatoes and beans, and it will offer this on a contract service is capacity allows.  

Novel forage crops with a higher lipid content are being developed to help reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock without compromising nutrition. Trials on a new type of wheat with a lower risk of producing harmful acrylamide are also underway.  

The researchers are hopeful that the new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act which came into force earlier in 2023 will speed up their research and the ability to translate it. As Nigel Halford explained:

“Regulation drives the kind of science we do and how we do it.”  

A Precision Breeding Working Group has been convened by Defra at the request of Number 10, to understand what is needed for gene-edited material to become commercially available. Consisting of researchers, plant breeders, growers, food manufacturers and retailers, the plan is to explore and facilitate routes to market.  

William Pelton, CEO Phytoform; Vladimir Nekrasov, Rothamsted Research; Mary Ellis, CEO PheroSyn; Peter Eastmond, Jonathan Napier, Freddie Theodoulou, Richard Haslam, Nigel Halford, Georgia Mitrousia, all Rothamsted Research. 

The commercial angle

As well as needing to do great science, funding for the research needs to be secured, the regulatory landscape must be navigated, and there is public perception to consider. 

“Translating this kind of research into commercial practice is really hard – and it takes a long time!” 

said Prof Jonathan Napier, Omega-3 Camelina Development Flagship Leader at Rothamsted.  

He should know – he has spent the last 25 years working to produce camelina plants with omega-3 oil that has the same composition as that produced by fish. The goal is to ease pressure on fish stocks and to provide a land-based source of nutrition.  

However, Rothamsted is also home to several spin-out and start-up businesses. PheroSyn, for instance, uses synthetic chemistry to replicate identical insect pheromones, to use either to disrupt mating, or employ as a “lure and kill” pest management strategy.  

Phytoform uses large data sets to train AI models around modulating the activity of different genes. With six programmes on potato, tomato and lupin, field trials are due to start next year.  

Ask the audience 

During a short workshop session, delegates (consisting of researchers, processers, breeders, tech developers and food manufacturers) agreed on the need to prioritise and coordinate education and regulation in parallel. This would build confidence and enhance understanding simultaneously. Key quotes included: 

“Avoid making it a political issue.” 

“Focus on products with consumer benefit.”

“Clear messaging and clear food labelling.”  

When asked to identify agricultural challenges where gene-editing could potentially have an impact, delegates highlighted pest control, nitrogen-fixation and traits for climate resilience.  

These new research tools are allowing science to be done faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively than ever. But the science is only the first step in a long series of steps to get a viable product into the hands of the end-users along the supply chain.  

So perhaps the most important question of the day was around how to coordinate this journey from laboratory bench to the commercial marketplace? It’s not cheap, not fast and not easy. But a successful transition to net zero for the food system depends on being able to do it better than has been done in the past.

ATW23: Integrated pest management in action

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Managing pest and disease pressures in a farming system does not always mean reaching for the (ag-chem) can as a first resort. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) principles offer a holistic approach of prevention, detection, and control measures.

At this ATW23 event, farmers and agronomists were given a taste of what IPM implementation could look like and what support tools are available from ADAS to put it into practice.

IPM in action: stories from farm managers on IPM and biodiversity conservation

We heard from individuals of their experiences of IPM in action. RSBP Farm Manager Georgie Bray and research agronomist Andrew Christie shared their respective knowledge of promoting IPM good practice and enhancing natural pest control.

Andrew explained how, in Scotland, the James Hutton Institute (JHI) is helping farmers to reduce their inputs while still maintaining outputs. Through a local IPM Hub and his role as Hub coach, Andrew brings together farmers trialling alternative methods of disease control in arable crops, and who are keen to learn from each other. This IPM hub is part of an EU-wide network of farms demonstrating and promoting cost-effective IPM strategies as part of IPMWorks.

One successful example of JHI’s IPM Hub in Scotland, has been in companion cropping trials using oilseed rape to control cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB) – an emerging threat in Scotland.  While the trial took place in a low-pressure year for CSFB, the companion cropping treatment still showed improved crop establishment, no yield penalty was observed and the farm achieved a cost saving of £155/ha.

Phil Walker, Duncan Coston & Lynn Tatnell, ADAS; Andrew Christie, James Hutton Institute;
Georgie Bray, RSPB Hope Farm

In Cambridgeshire, the ethos at RSPB’s Hope Farm is to produce food and maintain a thriving wildlife population while turning a profit at the same time, emphasised Georgie. The farm follows the principles and key actions of the Farm Wildlife approach, which aims primarily, to improve wildlife on the farm, but has extended benefits such as enhanced pest control.

Flower margins pack a punch in a small area, though they do require careful management. This starts with identifying the right areas to provide connected habitats – think linear passageways rather than pockets of isolated margins. Then comes suitable seed mixes. Here, it’s worth considering which pollinator species you want to encourage as this will guide decisions on the best shapes, sizes and flowering period of the mix. Hard management in the first couple of years is important to ensure flower margins establish well and aren’t taken over by grasses and weeds.

By integrating flower margins and other key actions from Farm Wildlife – such as biodiverse boundaries and wet features – Hope Farm has been able to increase and maintain population numbers of birds and pollinators well over the national index baseline.

Supporting farmers and agronomists implementing IPM

Georgie and Andrew’s experiences show that managing pests on the farm can take very different facets. So how do you decide what to put in place and how to integrate it?

To build a strategy, you first need the tools. With so many projects, systems and tools available out there, it can be very difficult to identify what is relevant for your farm. Phil Walker and Mark Ramsden provided some examples of the support tools that ADAS has been involved in developing, to help farmers and agronomists build IPM strategies relevant for their farm.

IPMWorks and IPMDecisions both aim to bring all these isolated solutions with a useful ‘one-stop shop’ dashboard that can easily be tailored. IPMWorks focuses on non-chemical control methods whereas IPMDecisions provides tools with a focus on reducing pesticide use.

The IPM Planning Tool helps farmers create an IPM action plan by providing an integrated overview of control measures that they can tailor to the crops they grow and the pests, diseases or weeds that they want to tackle. This tool was developed as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, a mechanism for farmers to get paid for public goods.

Weeding innovations and accessibility: tools, challenges, and partnerships

Weeds require an integrated approach to keep them under control. Farmers now have a range of tools available to them in the weed management toolbox.

From robotic, electric or mechanical weeding, to living mulches and targeted herbicide use, the science and technology has moved on considerably through the R&D and commercial pipeline. When it comes to take-up however, a survey showed that, while the interest in new weeding technologies has increased, they remain too expensive and hard to access.

To address these barriers, ADAS is partnering in Oper8, an EU-wide project aiming to increase accessibility and encourage the uptake of alternative weeding methods. The project is building a network of demonstration sites, easily accessible training material and videos.

Conclusions

Now a familiar concept to many, IPM continues to evolve with emerging tools and technologies providing much needed solutions to help farmers and agronomists implement these key principles on farm.