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Precision breeding

What precision breeding is and its potential applications.

Last updated: 24 March 2023
Last updated: 24 March 2023

What is precision breeding?

Precision breeding covers plants and animals developed using modern biotechnology, such as gene editing, but where the genetic changes could have occurred through traditional breeding methods. Gene editing techniques (such as CRISPR or TALEN) can be used to make edits that fall within the scope of precision breeding.  

Gene editing uses specialised enzymes to cut  DNA  at specific points along the  DNA  sequence. At these points,  DNA can be added, removed, or replaced in a precise manner. Precision breeding covers gene changes which are equivalent to those that could have occurred through traditional breeding methods. This is different to genetic modification, where genes derived from an unrelated species can be introduced into an organism’s genome to confer characteristics that could not naturally be found in that organism. 

Precision breeding could have many practical applications for food production, by introducing desirable traits in crops and livestock that could otherwise take many years to develop. Crop breeders traditionally identify varieties that have certain genes of interest and spend many years cross-breeding these with "elite" varieties to get the best combination of genes in future generations of crops. Using precision breeding, these changes could be made directly to the elite variety, without the need for years of cross-breeding. 

Crops can be edited to enhance their flavour, nutritional content, and resistance to environmental stressors, such as drought or disease. The potential benefits of this technology include but are not limited to: 

  • Tomatoes biofortified with vitamin D – research shows 50% of Europeans (and 1 billion people worldwide) suffer from vitamin D deficiency. 
  • Reduction in pesticide usage- - Introducing resistance genes to crops such as sugar beet or oilseed rape can prevent yield losses to pathogens and insect pests. This would reduce the need for pesticides, helping to preserve the environment and reduce costs to farmers while increasing production of food.  
  • Wheat without asparagine (to prevent the formation of acrylamide) – acrylamide has been linked to increased risks of cancer and occurs naturally in foods containing the amino acid asparagine. 

Products developed from precision breeding in the UK

Currently there are no crops or animals resulting from precision breeding technology that have been authorised for sale as food or animal feed in the UK, although the use of gene editing technologies has produced some products that are available elsewhere in the world including Canada, China, the US, Australia, and Brazil (with varying regulation).  

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 removes precision bred organisms from the legal definition of genetically modified organisms in England and provides powers that will allow the FSA to create a proportionate regulatory framework.  The regulation of precision bred plants will come first. Additional regulations will need to be made by Defra before precision breeding can be used in animals. 

Where techniques of modern biotechnology have introduced genetic changes into organisms that could not have occurred by traditional breeding techniques, the resultant organisms will continue to be regulated as GMOs

Our role

As a result of this change in legislation, we’re developing a new evidence-based pre-market authorisation process for the use of precision bred organisms in food and feed products that will assess the risk these organisms pose on a case-by-case basis.

This process will mean that all the associated food safety risks are assessed, managed and communicated to Ministers to inform their decision on whether a PBO is safe to be marketed for use in food and feed. We will consult scientific experts, carry out risk assessments, review the evidence and consider wider impacts. This process will give consumers confidence and trust in the food they eat. 

Under the proposed process, precision bred foods will only be permitted if they are judged: 

  • not to risk health 
  • not to mislead consumers 
  • not to have lower nutritional value than their traditionally bred counterparts

We are committed to maintaining the UK’s high standards of food and feed safety, and we believe we can achieve this while also supporting innovation and the benefits these emerging technologies bring.