Increased sustainability by using CRISPR-Cas9 in plant breeding

Sweden's starch producers, in collaboration with SLU, and using the CRISPR-Cas9 plant processing technology, have developed a potato that will drastically reduce current chemical use.

The European Court of Justice recently came up with a ruling on how the use of mutagenesis should be interpreted in an existing GMO directive, a judgment that is more confusing than guiding .

"We interpret the ruling that our newly developed potato lines are still exempted from regulation," says Mathias Samuelsson, R & D Manager, Swedish Starch Producers’ Association.

Since ancient times, people have used spontaneous mutations and controlled crossbreeding in plants to produce new varieties, a time-consuming job and a very costly process. Over the last century, techniques have been added to create mutations at random. This has given many important traits that are included in more than 3000 new cultivated varieties since the 1930s.

A few years ago, researchers working in the United States and in Umeå, managed to develop a technique for directing and controlling mutations.

The technology - CRISPR-Cas9 - is considered to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern plant breeding.

CRISPR-Cas9 is used on the plant's own germplasm to quickly and accurately turn off adverse genes. No foreign DNA needs to be brought into the plant.

CRISPR technology thus creates great opportunities to meet the demands for sustainable production that our consumers set and our society expects us to live up to.

The European Court of Justice has recently come up with a ruling on mutation techniques that is unclear and confusing. The court believes that even controlled mutations can be defined as GMOs and possibly subject to regulation, despite the fact that no foreign DNA is introduced. Non-controlled mutations (induced by chemicals or radiation) will continue to not be subjected to GMO regulations.

Swedish starch producers produce potato starch from potatoes grown in Sweden. The starch is processed and sold to the food industry, where it is used to give the desired consistency in a wide variety of food products.

Sustainability is a leading issue in our business as well as a strong demand from consumers and society. To meet these demands, we work in a wide number of areas to improve our products and our production methods.

For a few years now, we are running a comprehensive project with our growers to reduce the use of plant protection products in the crop. The goal is to halve the use by 2021. This is possible by changing the way of working, utilizing new technology for forecasting methods and adjusting the efforts according to the need. We work with extensive consulting and a great commitment from our growers, and so far have come more than halfway.

Once having reached our goal, our ambition is to reduce it by 50 percent once again. However, then it will not be enough with changing the working method any longer, but we will also need to have access to new potato varieties, that are resistant to the fungal diseases we now have to deal with.

Here, the modern plant breeding is amazing as it creates the opportunity to produce varieties with such resistance in a relatively short period of time. It is unreasonable that an unclear judgment in the EU should stop the possibility of this development.

The next part of our sustainability work is to create new conditions for refining starch in an environmentally friendly manner without or with very little use of chemistry. The processes that are used today to make the starch useful in the food industry are well proven and have been developed for more than 80 years. The products are carefully tested and approved and have been defined as a variety of E-numbers. One disadvantage, however, is that a number of chemical reactions and therefore a significant chemical use are required to achieve the right properties.

With the help of modern plant breeding - CRISPR technology - we have already developed starch potatoes, which in the plant have the properties required to meet consumer demands and society’s and our own sustainability goals

We can thus remove large amounts of today's essential starch processing. Instead, we can make the potato plants produce starches that have the requested properties but are E-number-free. This means a radical reduction in chemical use while the products work well and are desired by consumers.

The new potatoes have a starch quality that occurs naturally in many different crops and no foreign DNA has been added, which has been ensured using extensive analysis. The potato is nothing but an ordinary potato.

In Sweden, the Swedish Board of Agriculture has previously reviewed the technology we have used and concluded that according to the regulations in force (Directive 2001/18 / EG), the technology does not result in GMOs to be regulated by the Directive. Random mutations have been compared with controlled ones, thus favoring the development we have been conducting. It is now very important that continued support will be given.

If you put a total stop of using new technology, we will lose an important tool for pushing a development that can handle the critical issues of resourcefulness, sustainable production and slowing down climate change. It must not happen!

There is no doubt that the new potatoes even today, after the judgment in the French case, are not considered to be GMOs regulated under Directive 2001/18 / EC. The only difference is that after the verdict we have got a more confused guidance trying to adapt to when working with mutation techniques to process plants meeting European sustainability requirements, climate-smart food production and consumer demand for food.

We consider it unreasonable to slow down this development on the basis of diffuse reasoning that lacks scientific basis and the argument that technology could be used to create herbicide tolerance, as pointed out on several occasions in the judgment.

Then it must be much more logical to regulate this. We therefore hope that Swedish authorities will continue to take a stand for a use of CRISPR technology with a number of conditions picking up what the European Court of Justice has expressed concerns about.

This may be:

•The application of CRISPR technology must be such as to ensure that foreign DNA is not introducedinto the cultivated plant

•Control that this has not been done should be carried out.

•If foreign DNA is introduced and maintained, regulation should be in accordance with commonGMO directives

•CRISPR technology should not be used to create herbicide tolerance.

This way, we would equate CRISPR technology with traditional mutation techniques in relation to authorization and regulation of GMOs.

Per Hofvander, Researcher at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

Mariette Andersson, Researcher at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Hans Berggren, CEO Swedish Starch Manufacturers’ Association (SSF)

Mathias Samuelsson, Research & Development Director, Swedish Starch Manufacturers’ Association

Stina Nilsson, Owners’ Administration Manager, Swedish Starch Manufacturers’ Association

Swedish Starch Manufacturers’ Association (SSF), is owned by 600 farmers in the southeast part of Sweden. Every year some 300 000 tons potato is processed into some 80 000 tons potato starch. The company group has their own companies in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, Russia and China and has an annual turnover of appr. 1800 MSK.

The researchers can be found at The Department of Plant Breeding at The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), world leader when it comes to applications of CRISPR-Cas9 technique as method of refinement of potato.


Contact details: Hans Berggren: +46 (0)73 040 42 01

Mathias Samuelsson: +46 (0)73 043 34 72


Press release from The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences about new potato variety

Press release from EU court:


Pressmeddelande from USDA;

Kristianstad, September 11, 2018

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