Norfolk gene scientists have highlighted the "huge potential" to future-proof food crops in a "new era" of precision plant-breeding.

Researchers from the Norwich Research Park (NRP) outlined the latest technologies during Agri-Tech Week - a series of events across East Anglia promoting new farming science and innovations.

A key topic was gene editing, a technique which allows scientists to make targeted changes to a plant's DNA by removing or editing parts of its existing genetic sequence.

Dr Penny Hundleby, a senior scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC), said this process could improve crops much faster than traditional plant breeding - but it differs from genetic modification (GM) as no material is introduced from other species.

It could boost beneficial traits such as resistance to droughts and diseases, reducing the reliance on synthetic agri-chemicals, and adapting crops to consumer needs, she said.

And the government's Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which is progressing through parliament, gives the UK a chance to regulate this technology differently to the EU, where it is treated the same as GM.

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Dr Hundleby said: "Gene editing brings us into this new era of informed precision-based breeding, and I think it will very much speed up the trait discovery pipeline."

The first stage of the legislation has already simplified the approvals process for field trials, she said, including a tomato edited at the JIC to boost its levels of pro-vitamin D3.

Other gene-editing projects range from reducing premature pod shatter in oilseed rape to the development of pitless cherries.

Prof Nick Talbot, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said while gene editing is a powerful tool, he believes GM is also still an important innovation for sustainable agriculture.

He gave one example of a project, trialled a the NRP, to modify commercial Maris Piper potatoes with late blight resistance genes found in wild relatives of the potato plant, which could reduce farmers' reliance on costly and environmentally-damaging chemicals.

"Our aim in doing this is to try and replace chemicals with genetics," he said. "If we can harness genes from wild relatives, for example in commercial potatoes, we can actually get disease resistance which is going to be much more durable, and much more likely to remain intact."

Prof Talbot also highlighted the nutritionally-enhanced GM purple tomatoes, developed at the NRP using genes from snapdragon flowers to boost anthocyanin production, which recently cleared a regulatory hurdle to be sold in the USA.

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Opposition to bill

Although welcomed by many farming and science organisations, the government’s genetic technology bill has provoked concerns from opponents.

During a parliamentary debate earlier this month, shadow farm minister David Zeichner described the bill as “vague and thin” and called for details of how the technology would be adequately regulated.

He said: “We must recognise that any new technology also carries risks: risks of unintended consequences; risks of technology being misused; and risks of commercial pressure being exerted in ways that might not be for the benefit of the wider public.”

But Defra farm minister Mark Spencer said the Food Standards Agency would have strict measures in place to ensure produce will only go on sale “if it is judged to present no risk to health, does not mislead consumers, and does not have lower nutritional value than its traditionally-bred counterparts”.

Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers, later said the bill had "potentially seismic consequences to the UK food industry".

"This deeply troubling bill removes any labelling and traceability requirements for a hypothetical sub-class of GMO (genetically-modified organism), the so-called ‘precision bred organism’," he said.

"These exempted organisms will effectively be hidden in the food system."