Italy commits €21m to crop resistance research

The project will focus on cisgenic engineering, which crosses genes between closely related organisms and could provide solutions to diseases ravaging southern Italy’s olive trees.

The Italian government has committed €21 million to a 3-year biotechnology project run between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economics Analysis (CREA) in Rome.

The project will focus on cisgenic genetic engineering, a type of genetic editing that the Italian government says is similar to classical plant cross-breeding methods. It wants the European Union (EU) to differentiate what it terms cisgenically “edited” crops from heavily regulated genetically modified crops (GMO), according to a Ministry of Agriculture press release.

The project will look at disease resistance. Over the last 3 years, Puglia’s olive trees have been ravaged by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterial disease. The fungal disease Botrytis can also reduce grape harvests by up to 15 percent. Wine is one of Italy’s most important export industries, and last year the country exported 219.5 thousand tonnes of olive oil.

Research will centre around vines, olives, tomatoes, peaches, apricots, citrus fruits, wheat, aubergines, apples, cherries and poplars, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“We want to protect our unique heritage of biodiversity as much as possible,” said minister of agriculture Maurizio Martina. “We are investing in the best technologies to protect our major products, from the grape to olive trees, and from the peach to the pear tree.”

Italy, the Netherlands and several other EU member states have repeatedly asked the European Commission to clarify its position over cisgenic research. The Italian government hopes that with EU approval, CREA scientists will be able to carry out field trials beyond the lab. Italy agricultural ministry also pointed out in its press release that cisgenically engineered corps are not regulated as GMO crops in the US.

Italy’s biotech industry is growing. According to a report by AssoBiotech, €7.7 billion was invested in Italian biotech companies in 2014, most of which were startups and academic or industrial spin-offs.