Will this field trial revolutionise barley production?

Will this field trial revolutionise barley production?

Switzerland's first field trial using plants from new breeding technologies will start this spring in Zurich. Specifically, the aim is to breed a spring barley that produces more grains per ear. If the trial works, the technology is likely to be of great interest to Swiss agriculture.

Monday, March 18, 2024

It is a field trial that could revolutionise barley production. From this spring, spring barley modified with new breeding technologies will be grown on the trial field in Zurich Reckenholz for a period of three years. Agroscope has received the relevant authorisation from the Federal Office for the Environment for a field trial with «genetically modified» plants, as new breeding technologies are generally regarded as genetic engineering in Switzerland – even though they are much more precise and safer than conventional genetic engineering and even more precise than random mutation breeding, which is also classified as genetic engineering by the European Court of Justice and has been used in conventional and organic plant breeding to date and involves radioactive irradiation or chemical treatme This is the first authorised field trial with plants from new breeding technologies in Switzerland, as reported by «topagrar» and others.

Field trials in the «protected site»

Switzerland has had a moratorium on genetic engineering since 2005, which allows research into genetic engineering but prohibits the sowing of genetically modified plants using conventional genetic engineering. Agroscope has been operating a secure trial area for field trials with GMOs in Reckenholz, Zurich, since 2014. However, the restrictive conditions hinder and make research much more expensive.

With new breeding methods such as the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors, targeted interventions can be carried out in the genetic material of a plant, which means that varieties can be bred to be more robust and the yield of the variety can be increased. This is exactly what is hoped for in the upcoming field trial. The reason: as part of a similar experiment with rice, researchers from the Free University of Berlin, together with scientists from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, came to the conclusion that the mutation of the CKX2 gene – which is also at the centre of the field trial in Zurich – has an unexpectedly large effect on yield. The results were so promising that the mutation is now widely used in rice breeding.


More grains per ear thanks to genome editing

In this case, researchers have specifically bred a trait that produces more grains per ear. The scientists succeeded in doing this by rendering the two different copies of the CKX2 gene non-functional, which had the effect of producing more grains per ear in the greenhouse. If this method works with the barley native to this country – and also in the field, where it is now being tested – this application of new breeding technologies would be very interesting for Swiss agriculture.

Although this newly bred barley is legally regulated as genetically modified in Switzerland, genetically it hardly differs from conventional varieties. This is because the mutations introduced could theoretically have arisen by chance. However, the new breeding techniques have inserted them precisely at the desired location.

But what are the advantages of increasing yields for sustainable agriculture? Increased yields are sustainable due to increased land efficiency because more can now be produced on the same amount of land. According to a study by Cambridge University, biodiversity benefits from «densified production». This means that resources are utilised most efficiently when as much as possible is produced on small areas. This also protects nature, as it can develop on other land in return. In addition, yields are increased. However, this is not the case with extensification of agricultural production (for example in organic farming): more and more land is required for the same or even slightly lower yields. As a result, an increasing proportion of agricultural production is being shifted to areas abroad.


Plenty of potential for new breeding technologies in Switzerland

In addition to the modified barley, there are countless other examples of new breeding technologies that could be of interest to Swiss agriculture. For example, Japanese researchers have used genome editing to develop a more robust wheat that can save yields in the event of heavy rainfall – a phenomenon that will become increasingly common in times of climate change.

However, new breeding technologies are not only useful in terms of yields. Genome editing, for example, enables precision breeding, which is particularly useful in the area of disease control. One example is late blight-resistant potatoes, which were also bred with the help of genetic scissors. You can find more examples here.

In Switzerland, the legal framework for the use of genome-edited plants is now being discussed at the highest political level. The Federal Council intends to submit proposals to Parliament by mid-2025.

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