How gene-editing wheat could solve food security, climate change and farm profitability

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Gene-editing wheat is today's answer for tomorrow's challenges of food security, climate change and farm profitability. Pic: GettyImages
Gene-editing wheat is today's answer for tomorrow's challenges of food security, climate change and farm profitability. Pic: GettyImages

Related tags gene editing Wheat Australia Genetically modified crops

Hot on the heels of China’s approval for the production of the country’s inaugural gene-edited wheat variety, the groundwork for a major trial of gene-edited wheat has begun in Australia.

Australian seed breeder Integrain has embarked on a trial to grow gene-edited seeds in a greenhouse setting.

Earlier this year, the Perth-headquartered company – which is majority-owned by the Western Australia State Government, along with the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) – imported wheat seeds that had been created by Inari. The US agritech firm uses artificial intelligence (AI) to map potential gene edits before applying CRISPR-Cas to change the seeds’ DNA genes.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary tech used for editing genomes that allows scientists to alter multiple DNA sequences simultaneously, while CRISPR-associated (Cas) proteins are enzymes that are guided to specific locations in the genome by RNA molecules to make a cut in the DNA.

Advocates of gene-editing say the cutting-edge process could create more nutritious, hardier crops with 10% higher yields and less need for water, fertilizer and chemicals.

And unlike genetic modification (GM),​ gene-editing doesn’t introduce foreign DNA, instead manipulating the existing natural genome. As such, regulators see it as less risky than GMO and closer to traditional plant breeding – a major reason why the Chinese government recently gave a gene-edited wheat variety the green light to be produced on a commercial scale.

Higher productivity

Scientist in field of wheat Getty Monty Rakusen
Pic: GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

According to two agritech companies, gene editing could achieve gains 10-15 times faster than traditional plant breeding.

Additionally, China’s approval comes on the back of the gene-edited wheat’s disease-resistant ability, ​along with its potential to open up technological prospects for other GM crops intended for human consumption. As it is, the Ministry has given the green light for a new biotech corn variety with herbicide and insect-resistant traits, along with a high-yielding gene-edited corn hybrid.

Some gene-edited crops are already available in Australia, but most offer specific nutritional improvements or disease resistance rather than a range of changes aimed at higher productivity per unit of water or fertilizer.

The seeds from Inari are being used in greenhouse trials that will grow more plants and hopefully produce enough seeds to plant an additional 45 trial sites across the country during the 2025 growing season.

"Our job is to work out which gene combination gives the best results,” InterGrain CEO Tress Walmsley told Reuters.

“Our goal is at least 10% yield improvement. These seeds have the potential to achieve that,” she said.

Added Inari CO Ponsi Trivisvavet, “We want to solve food security, climate change and farm profitability at the same time.”

"Potentially we could be looking to have products in the market in around 2028."

While China is the world’s leading wheat producer and consumer, the land down under is one of the world’s biggest wheat exporters.

“InterGrain is working to make sure regulatory processes are in place that would allow Australia to sell gene-edited crops into its export markets,” said Walmsley.

Inari is also working with seed companies to commercially launch a gene-edited high-yielding soybean in the US.

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