New genomic techniques (GMTs) or gene editing will be the “latest tool in the toolbox” for crop plant breeders to enhance productivity and reduce dependence on inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides, according to manager of plant breeding innovation advocacy at Euroseeds Dr Petra Jorasch.

She said GMT plant breeding in Europe has the potential to feed an additional 20m people, that it will “avoid global greenhouse gas emissions of roundabout 350m tonnes” and “preserve biodiversity living in about 2m hectares”.

Dr Jorasch said that without such plant breeding innovation, the European Commission’s climate strategies, such as Farm to Fork, will lead to a 23% reduction in tillage crop output in the EU by 2030.

She was speaking at a symposium on the potential of gene editing use in Irish agriculture held in University College Cork (UCC) on Thursday.

Output reduction

Dr Jorasch highlighted how Farm to Fork seeks to reduce pesticide use by 50%, fertiliser use by 20% and productive farmland by 10% and said this, alongside measures to move 25% of EU agricultural land to organic production, will reduce crop outputs.

She said 10% of the reduction in crop output will come straight from transferring farmland to areas for nature and 13% will come from overall lower yields due to input changes.

The crop seed expert used these scenarios to demonstrate why increased use of GMTs in plant breeding is needed.

Net importer

Current plant breeding technologies in the EU, without using gene editing, are creating 3,500 new seed varieties annually, with over 42,000 seed varieties currently available to tillage farmers, said Dr Jorasch.

She said this current plant breeding is responsible for 66% of annual crop productivity growth in the EU, increasing overall yield by 1.16% annually.

Dr Petra Jorasch of Euroseeds addressing attendees at the University College Cork symposium on the potential of gene editing in Irish agriculture.

She warned that without such plant breeding continuing over the next 20 years, the EU will become a “net importer in all arable crops including wheat and other cereals”.

She said this would lead to the EU’s agricultural competitors “gaining competitiveness and increasing their market shares”.

However, the Euroseeds representative said the additional supply of new seed varieties by 2030, created through plant breeding between 2020 and 2029, “won’t be enough to compensate” for the losses created by EU environmental strategies. She said wheat and oilseed rape production is particularly vulnerable to this scenario.

Role of gene editing

Using what she described as “conservative calculations”, Dr Jorasch said new plant breeding methods such as gene editing would save two years of seed variety development and speed up plant breeding progress by 18%.

Building on the 1.16% annual increase in yield created through current plant breeding techniques, she said gene editing could increase crop yields by 1.34% annually.