Climate-resilient wheat could be developed as gene editing research is allowed after Brexit

ITV News Science Editor Deborah Cohen explores the benefits and concerns around gene editing now that further research is allowed to go ahead after Brexit

Climate-resilient wheat, disease-resistant bananas, and tomatoes that aren’t damaged by mildew - these are all crops that scientists hope to develop using modern genetic techniques.

Until today, their work has been limited by strict rules governing how the research is carried out.

New legislation aims to allow scientists to do plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies, such as gene editing, more easily.

The government has given the go-ahead for further research now that, after Brexit, the UK is no longer bound by stricter EU rules.

Professor Wendy Harwood at the John Innes Centre on the outskirts of Norwich has developed genetically-edited wheat that she hopes will withstand increases in heat and adverse weather.

Prof Wendy Harwood explains how gene editing could increase the yield of wheat Credit: ITV News

Two-and-a-half billion people globally are dependent on wheat for food. But how much the crop yields is dependent on temperature.

“With climate change, as temperatures are increasing, then the yield of wheat is under threat,” Prof Harwood says.

“If we can find a really key gene that may be impacted by temperature, it’s possible that by gene editing, we can make tiny tweaks to that gene which will make it more resistant to those temperature changes so that we can maintain the yield in changing environmental conditions,” she adds.

The new rules mean they will be able to move their gene-edited wheat from the highly-controlled lab environments into the nearby fields to see how the changes they have made fare in the unpredictable nature of the real world.

Genome - or gene - editing is a technique used to modify a cell’s DNA with precision and it can be done without DNA from other species. It allows scientists to speed up the changes to a trait of a plant which may take traditional breeders many years.

Plants - including wheat - are made up of pages and pages of genetic code.

Gene editing works by searching for a specific part of the code. It then cuts or tweaks that part of the code, changing the nature of the plant.

For example, it may look for the codes that make wheat sensitive to high temperatures and tweak them to make it more resistant.

Genetically edited wheat Credit: ITV News

But some argue that while the technology could be used for public good, there are other considerations.

Danielle Hamm, director of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, says that field trials are really important in establishing the safety of this new technology and we need to think carefully about the broader impact.

She said: “There is also the potential for it to intensify already unsustainable farming practices and increase yields and profits without actually benefiting consumers in the way it is promised.”

She added: “We think that’s a really important discussion to have as consumers and we think the government has a responsibility to ensure that checks and balances are in place.”

Some scientists hope this is just the start. There are hopes that these techniques could be used to make the food we eat more nutritious.

Jo Churchill, Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation, says it’s important to take people along with them - both from within the scientific community and those who want to know where their food has come from.

“We're very aware that this whole area can feel worrying to people. So what we're taking is the first small, proportionate step to allow our scientists to really, really look at this technology and see where gene editing can really benefit people,” she says.