Seed World

Uruguay Advances Plant Breeding Innovation with Gene Editing Decree

From left to right: Alejandra Ferenczi, Virginia Guardia, Diego Risso, and Agustín Damboriarena.

Approval of new gene editing regulation is an important milestone for science and the seed sector in Uruguay.

In March, Uruguay underscored its commitment to technological innovation when the country’s legislative bodies approved a decree on gene editing, marking a significant milestone for the country’s seed sector. This regulatory breakthrough, which has been the result of several years of work, seeks to promote innovation and provide a clear framework for the development of new technologies in agriculture.

In an interview with Seed World LATAM, Agustín Damboriarena, Managing Director of the Uruguayan Chamber of Seeds (CUS), expressed his enthusiasm about the new regulation. “It is an achievement for Uruguay to reach this resolution, aligning the country with others at the forefront of new technologies.” 

Damboriarena emphasized that this regulation complements Uruguay’s 15 years of experience with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and adds to the tools available for technological development in agriculture.

“It is essential for there to be tools on the table so that each company or organization can have them at their disposal according to their objectives,” he said.

Damboriarena also underscored the importance of effective communication in demystifying gene editing. “A major challenge is to inform properly, highlighting the benefits and clarifying that gene editing is not about incorporating foreign DNA, but instead a technique that is more similar to the natural mutations that occur inside an organism’s DNA.”

The decree, approved and presented in March 2024, establishes a clear framework for using gene editing techniques to improve plants, seeds and other agricultural products. It also provides for the creation of Technical Working Groups formed of experts from various institutions who will evaluate each specific case and determine whether a product is covered by the country’s GMO regulations.

Development Process

Seed World LATAM discussed this important milestone for Uruguay´s science and seed sector with Alejandra Ferenczi, Biosafety Manager at Uruguay’s Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries (MGAP) and Coordinator of Biosafety Risk Assessment of the National Biosafety System, and Virginia Guardia, Director of Biosafety and Food Safety at MGAP. 

The process leading to the approval of the gene-editing decree in Uruguay has been notable for its scientific and meticulous approach. Ferenczi explained: “This decree establishes a science-based mechanism to define whether or not a product developed with gene editing techniques is covered by the regulations for genetically modified organisms. This is essential to ensure that innovations are safe and well regulated.”

The decree does not entail a specific authorization; instead, it defines a procedure for assessing whether a product is considered GMO. This is done through a Technical Working Group (TWG) with specialists from various institutions and that may include additional experts as needed. The entire process is transparent and seeks to ensure the scientific traceability of the evaluations.

The approval of gene editing in Uruguay was a long process of many years for several reasons. Since 2016, the country had begun to observe regulatory developments in the Latin American region, especially in Argentina. The General Directorate of Biosafety and Food Safety (DIGEBIA) of the MGAP initiated an intensive training process to understand these developments’ scientific and technical complexities, participating in events organized by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and MERCOSUR commissions. The process included exchanges with regulators, scientists, and other relevant actors, adjusting the findings to the Uruguayan context.

As DIGEBIA developed draft regulations, it worked in collaboration with Uruguay’s Ministry of Environment, which involved numerous exchanges and adjustments. Unlike other countries facing urgent crises, such as the threat of banana extinction in Costa Rica, Uruguay did not have a pressing situation that accelerated the process, allowing a slower and more detailed elaboration. 

Benefits of the New Regulation

Guardia highlighted the regulation’s potential to unlock new opportunities in the sector: “We believe that this regulation is a milestone because it provides clear rules for a technology that, although its development has been underway for years, is new in its practical application. This will allow researchers and companies to work with greater certainty and promote innovative solutions to Uruguay’s specific problems.”

Guardia stressed that biotechnological solutions in Uruguay, such as gene editing, are vital to address the country’s specific challenges. Unlike global crops such as soybeans and corn, Uruguay has a strong focus on its grass-based production and forages, which are essential to its production systems. 

“International biotech solutions are not always developed to meet our needs. That’s why our focus is on different materials, such as forage crops, concentrating on disease control and insect resistance, adapted to our local conditions,” she explained. 

The approval of the gene editing norm in Uruguay represents a turning point towards agricultural innovation, promising dynamism, greater product offerings and a better position in the international market. Guardia underscored the advantages of this regulation in enhancing Uruguayan producers’ competitiveness in the global market. 

In Guardia´s words, “Our producers compete internationally, and it is crucial that they have access to the same technological tools as their competitors. In addition, Uruguay now has the opportunity to become a regional innovation center, attracting investments and developing new biotech products.”

“For us, as representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, it is crucial that producers have secure options. Without a regulation, innovation is not possible. This regulation allows us to work with new technologies, opening up positive opportunities for the sector,” said Ferenczi.

This type of new technology promises other significant benefits, too, such as reduced costs and greater speed and efficiency in developing new varieties. 

“We believe that this is a tool that will promote the democratization of the technology, enabling companies to offer innovative products with faster processes and specific objectives at more accessible costs, compared, for example, with GMOs. And the impact is not limited only to plants, as it also includes the use of microorganisms and animals, which will benefit the entire agricultural system,” Damboriarena added.

This new regulatory framework not only aligns Uruguay with other countries that are advanced in biotechnology, but also boosts the development of innovative solutions for the agricultural sector, benefiting both local producers and the country’s economy in general.

As Damboriarena reflects, “We are happy to have this regulation in place as it aligns us with other countries in terms of the possibilities of using the technology, and we are confident that we will see positive results in the near future.”