Gene editing has been in the news on and off a lot lately, whether it's the biography of the scientist who create a key tech making it possible, or news of the COVID-19 vaccines. But a burgeoning area of science is the use of this technology to enhance a wide range of crops; yet there are challenges to bringing the tools to market.
To get a better understanding of the technology, and its potential, Farm Progress connected with two industry leaders to explore gene editing and its potential for farmers. And this technology has potential for all crops — whether you talk corn and soybeans or strawberries and peaches. Clint Nesbitt, senior director, science and regulatory affairs for BIO, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, an industry trade group focused on genetic technologies; and Fan Li Chou, vice president, scientific affairs, American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), an industry trade group focused on plant breeding, shared their insights on the opportunities and issues ahead.
Gene editing is a powerful tool, Nesbitt says. “Theoretically, that’s one of the weird things about gene editing is that the tools are really so flexible that you can do just about anything, within our knowledge of the existing genomes,” he explains. “I think the power and the excitement [about gene editing] is more about recreating genes that already existed in the wild, shortcutting the process of plant breeding.”
Adds Chou: “This is a breeding tool. It just makes breeding more efficient. The principles behind breeding are still the same. I think that the excitement around gene editing is that you can make [breeding] more precise and more efficient.”
In fact, while the science of plant breeding has come a long way since Gregor Mendel worked with pea plants in the 1800s, identifying dominant and recessive traits. Yet the process remains laborious. Identifying traits, doing crosses, back-crossing to get the right traits into better plants. It takes time; and frankly, time is money. Gene editing can be a time-saving method by allowing scientists to “guide” a plant to do better.
Knowing the genome of specific plants and having a better understanding of those genetic inner workings allows plant scientists to identify areas of opportunity. Nesbitt explains that there are a range of farmer-friendly traits under development, from drought tolerance to higher-yielding crops. All using gene editing. The key is prepping regulators and the market for what’s to come.
USDA has already signed off on the idea that if a trait or plant benefit available through gene editing could have been done through traditional means (but with much more time), there are no regulatory worries. EPA recently published a similar proposed rule, though the industry is waiting on where the Biden administration comes down on that score. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks at food crops from a safety standpoint but has yet to issue any rules or findings on gene editing.
Chou explains that the original regulatory framework, developed in the 1980s, was based on two ideas, traditional plant breeding and transgenic science — the work of bringing foreign genes into a plant. “Now we have a technology that can see a higher range, that has really challenged our regulatory system to be more product-based,” she says. “This is not a one-size [of regulation]-fits all.”
And a more product-focused approach to regulation may be the answer. But getting this set up does matter, because the consumer cares. Nesbitt notes that consumers want to know more about the food they buy, where it comes from and how it was produced. That includes understanding the technology involved.
For row crop farmers who feel they’re not so connected to the consumer, rising interest in all aspects of agriculture may end up shining a light on the technology you use. For specialty crop producers, the issue is nearer at hand. And having consumer understanding of the technology is important.
“They are selling a product to a retailer that sells it to supermarkets — or sometimes even directly,” Chou says. “They’re very concerned whether there’s going to be a market for this product. And it’s not just specifically gene editing. Across the board, there is a kind of consumer pressure on production.”
She explains that this time around, the message of this new crop technology is not just coming from the seed companies, but rather a coalition that includes all stakeholders, from seed to store shelf.
“The consumer wants certain things like certainty; high, lofty, good societal goals such as environmental sustainability; and we need to have some tools available to help achieve these goals,” she says. The aim is to help share with the consumer that the industry is being responsible with the technology, and not just the seed developer or plant breeder — but from a global perspective.
“And that’s more comprehensive from the approach that the seed companies took 30 years ago, when we worked with Bt corn,” she says.
The farmer, the industry and the future
Gene editing is a powerful breeding tool that can speed new traits into crops, no doubt. However, the consumer can have no doubts about the work being done. Nesbitt notes that the next steps involve working with the consumer at all levels.
“It really is just engaging that very broad conversation with consumers, with organizations that are consumer-facing … and have an open conversation about the use of technology in the food supply,” he says. “What are the benefits? What are people’s motives for doing this? And being very frank about the fact of why we’re doing it.”
The short answer is transparency. How can this tech work? Why should the consumer care? An effort that could help is that key features are being researched that deploy gene editing with traits consumers want — fruit that stays fresh longer; lettuce that can withstand saline soils; and corn that is more drought-tolerant and may require less irrigation water to get the same yield.
But trust begins with understanding. BIO and ASTA are working to develop that message, along with key farmer groups. For the local farmer, whether in Iowa or California, being part of this conversation for the future makes sense.
Chou explains that the consumer needs to be brought along slowly. She explains that for years, the popular image of agriculture is Old MacDonald’s farm. “When we tell children about agriculture, it’s still Old MacDonald’s farm, right? But we have [artificial intelligence], we have drones. There’s no children's book about that for the urban consumer.”
And that may be the crux of the matter. For so long, consumers have been away from farming; and while in their own lives, technology has become important, they saw food and farming through older eyes. Now they’re suddenly hearing about AI, gene editing, GPS and more being fully deployed by the folks raising their food.
Chou notes that can be a shock. “We don’t want people having an emotional connection to gene editing; we want an emotional connection to modern agriculture,” she says.