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Forage breeding gets boost from USDA nonregulation

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 27 April 2018

It favorably affects farmers’ seed pricing, and that’s always good news.

A recent USDA release states, “Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests.

This includes a set of new techniques increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.” (Read the full release here: USDA does not plan to regulate genome-edited plants)

Mark Boggess, director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, says, “This specifically is addressing technologies such as CRISPR. There will be no regulation of these technologies within the following guidelines [as stated in the full press release].”

CRISPR (the acronym for clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and specifically CRISPR-Cas9 (as well as other classes of nucleases that enable gene editing) have thus far been used to edit products creating canola herbicide tolerance, mushroom anti-browning, powdery mildew resistance in wheat, high-oleic-acid soybean oil, disease-resistant rice and waxy corn with amylopectin-only starch. Research has already begun in developing alfalfa varieties with another class of gene editing.

In short, these processes create mutations, and mutations occur naturally all the time during DNA replication or exposure to mutagens like ultraviolet rays in sunlight. CRISPR is the shortcut to create these mutations rather than selecting mutations through conventional plant breeding. The import of the press release is: Such plants will not be considered genetically modified subject to governmental regulation.

“New” material is not introduced into the genome using CRISPR, which is a defining characteristic in genetically modified technology. As such, it may be impossible to detect the breeding method from the resulting genetic material using gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR.

Why should farmers care?

This announcement by the USDA of its intent to not regulate gene editing means instead of a new plant variety taking decades to crossbreed and establish a new variety and then another decade or more tied up in governmental regulation hurdles, these improved varieties can now be made available to farmers within roughly three to five years and at much lower cost. Farmers typically bear the burden of governmental regulation (via the USDA, EPA and FDA) through raised seed prices.

The financial burden also discourages smaller breeders and universities from bringing new varieties to market except through the painstaking and labor-intensive process of conventional breeding. The newer technology is even more efficient than creating a genetically modified plant, as the new technology can target specific gene sequences.

CRISPR was first demonstrated in 2012, so the technology is still very new, and researchers are still learning what it has to offer.

Industry response

Shawn Barnett, general manager at Forage Genetics International (FGI), says, “FGI is supportive of USDA policy that furthers science-based innovation that is protective of plant health and the various agricultural stakeholders. We look forward to exploring technologies that have the potential to provide increased value to forage growers.”

While the technology has great potential, it’s not the answer for every plant breeder. Dave Robison with independent alfalfa breeder Legacy Seeds says, “As an independent breeder, we’re not at the stage to utilize this technology yet. We are very supportive of what it appears they’re trying to accomplish – the fact there’s freedom to operate. It looks to be a very positive aspect for the seed industry as a whole for agriculture.”

Risa Demasi, from seed breeder Grassland Oregon, concurs. She says, “Grassland Oregon is not participating in gene editing at this time, nor do we see ourselves moving in that direction. While we believe consumers should have choices, and new technologies add to the options available, we don’t see the need to participate in this new technology. As a ‘medium’ size breeding company, we will continue the art of conventional breeding.

Our core values are centered on this time-honored method, and we believe the market sector we serve appreciates this approach.”

Robin Newell, vice president of North American sales for S&W Seed Company, says S&W is pursuing several novel traits in alfalfa via an exclusive collaboration with Calyxt Inc., a Minnesota-based provider of gene-editing technologies.

He says the first gene-edited trait from this collaboration has already been evaluated by the USDA and been deemed nonregulated. Newell says, “The USDA’s decision to offer this broad statement of policy is very welcome news. It opens up the U.S. market to more trait developers to work in this plant breeding space, ultimately providing more options and potentially more competition.”

“The deregulation process around transgenic technology,” Newell says, “had become so expensive and time-consuming to pursue only a handful of companies could afford to perform biotech trait development, even in the largest-acreage annual crops. Despite alfalfa’s status as the nation’s third-most valuable crop, as a perennial crop, there were just 2.2 million acres of alfalfa seeded in the U.S. last year.”

“Compare that to about 90 million acres each for corn and soybeans. Since the cost of deregulation in a regulated trait environment is independent of the overall acreage or seeded acreage of a crop, it should be no surprise alfalfa received less seed company investment in biotech trait development under the ‘old’ system of biotech trait development, deregulation and commercialization. Seed companies that did invest in alfalfa biotech trait development and deregulation had to charge much higher trait technology fees than in larger-acreage crops. Now with the USDA’s decision, the door opens up a bit for more companies to enter the field of trait development in the forage seed industry.”

It’s a new day in forage breeding opportunities. What remains to be seen is the global reaction to the new technology.  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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