By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy
This week, Wageningan University —one of the top agricultural universities in the world, located in the Netherlands —issued a press release about their research on using gene editing to produce “gluten safe” wheat so that individuals with Celiac disease can enjoy wheat products. It is possible to remove all gluten genes from wheat; however, this process has a negative impact on baking quality and the wheat-food product. Instead, Wageningan PhD candidate Aurélie Jouanin is researching the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to modify specific wheat genes to produce wheat with safe gluten that does not cause an allergic reaction.
This is only one of many exciting research projects around the world using plant breeding innovation. These new technologies allow for precise changes to plant DNA to help address thorny challenges—consumer health, environmental stressors and disease pressures, among others. And as scientists find innovative ways to address complex issues, outdated and overly burdensome regulations struggle to catch up.
U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recognizes that advanced technology is imperative to helping farmers adapt to changing and challenging growing environments. Traditional breeding often takes too long and produces results that are too random to consistently keep up with evolving diseases and pests, and it has very little hope of doing something at the same scale as the potential of Jouanin’s research.
However, new technology also needs to be paired with consumer engagement and smart trade decisions. Recognizing this, the USW and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) adopted a joint statement on plant breeding innovation policy.
This statement distinguishes the importance of new technology in breeding for everyone along the supply chain, from farmers to international customers to consumers. It reaffirms our support of continued research; of fair, science-based regulation where necessary; and of the U.S. and foreign governments taking steps to ensure open trade flows. The statement also argues that plant breeding innovations should be clearly differentiated from traditional biotechnology in regulatory discussions, with internationally harmonized definitions and scientific standards.
Government regulations often move slowly. However, in this case, that slow movement can have serious repercussions on the agricultural industry and on consumers who could benefit from new technology. With this new policy statement, USW sends a clear message of support for science-based decision making and the opportunities that plant breeding innovation present for wheat.