Gene-edited plants aid food security, researchers say
Argument in favour of modified food crops unlikely to meet with unanimous approval. Natalie Parletta reports.
With renewed attention to implementation and regulation, new plant breeding technologies such as gene editing could make an important contribution to global food security, say a group of plant geneticists and economists.
The authors, from several institutions including the University of Liege, Belgium, and the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Pakistan, catalogue several new technologies to edit genes of plant crops that they suggest “may allay fears associated with GM crops”.
Because direct gene editing doesn’t involve transferring DNA across species – which creates transgenic crops – the paper, published in the journal Science, suggests the new methods could reduce regulatory costs and accelerate innovation.
The technologies include CRISPR-Cas systems: targeted techniques to alter sections of DNA by cutting and replacing specific genes. These represent “an effective suite of applications and molecular tools to precisely and efficiently alter the genome in a user-defined manner,” write Belgium’s Syed Shan-e-Ali Zaidi and colleagues.
Although plant biotechnology scientists argue the methods are different to transgenic modifications, the European Union has determined that the new plant gene editing techniques must undergo the same regulatory processes as other genetically modified organisms.
The decision is “devastating” to smaller companies and a deterrent to big funders of the research, advocates of the technology say.
While these polarised views of gene editing have been questioned, the Science paper essentially adds to existing calls for less restrictive regulations for biotechnology, advocating also for public-private partnerships and other strategies to help make plant genetic material available to developing countries.
In other endeavours to address global food security, the World Bank and the United Nations initiated the International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development project in 2004.
A report arising from the four-year project aims to “improve access to agricultural knowledge, science and technology to promote and facilitate sustainable agricultural practices, with the goal of reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods and health, and facilitating an equitable, environmental, social, and economic sustainable development”.
Evaluating the state of global agriculture involved exhaustive representation from more than 400 scientists from over 80 countries on all continents, ranging from agronomists, economists and botanists to meteorologists, ecologists and historians, extending to custodians of traditional and local knowledge from assorted cultures.
Agrochemical industry representatives were also involved, but walked out at the last minute because their pesticides and biotechnologies were not endorsed by the consortium.
The final report, declaring that “business as usual is not an option”, was signed by 58 countries in 2008. The US, Canada and Australia declined to do so.
It concluded that “continued reliance on simplistic and often expensive technological fixes – including transgenic crops – is not a solution to reducing persistent hunger and poverty and could exacerbate environmental problems and worsen social inequity”.
[Instead, the report offers multi-level solutions that include revision of agricultural research, extension and education, fair trade, embracing Indigenous knowledge, and enforcing corporate accountability to ensure research remains in the public interests.
Importantly, it proposes strategies to boost rural community agricultural practices, recognising that “small scale, low-impact, ecological farming offers a powerful and promising way forward”.
More recently, in 2013, the UN echoed calls for a radical overhaul of agricultural practices, moving away from “conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers”.
Key targets for the transformation, reinforced by this year’s EAT Lancet Commission report Food in the Anthropocene, include lowering greenhouse gas emissions from farming livestock, reducing food waste throughout the system, and changing dietary patterns to align with environmentally sustainable food intake.