Whether you know it specifically as CRISPR or “gene editing 2.0,” this technology has already descended upon agriculture and will continue to disrupt plant breeding for years.
These new breeding techniques are distinct from GMOs because they represent a much less invasive process. It’s not unlike the copy-and-paste function on a computer — plant breeders can highlight desirable crop traits, expressed as snippets of genetic code, clip out that code and reinsert it into other breeding lines.
“To describe it in three words: genetic molecular scissors,” says Kan Wang, Iowa State University global professor in biotechnology. “CRISPR is a way to make a plant precisely how you want. And farmers want better varieties and higher yields — that’s the bottom line.”
The technology has gained swift acceptance among plant breeders because of its incredible precision, Wang says. In fact, no breeding technique is more precise at this time, she says.
Today’s gene editing toolbox can perform several functions, says Rodolphe Barrangou, the lab lead at North Carolina State University’s CRISPR research facility.
“You can delete, insert, knock out, induce, image, recruit or repress [genes],” he says.
Fast-forward five short years, and gene-editing tools like CRISPR will redefine plant and animal breeding.
“This technology is not quite mature, but it’s the most disruptive and charming 5-year-old that we’ve had in a long time,” Barrangou says. “It’s scalable, specific, transferrable, efficient and precise.”
Currently, GMO varieties comprise more than 90% of U.S. corn, soybeans and cotton acres. And while GMOs and gene editing 2.0 have plenty in common, the latter’s disruption potential is hard to ignore, according to Richard Lally, research associate with Alltech Crop Science.
Imagine each organism’s DNA as a library, Lally says. In this analogy, each book represents a single chromosome, and each chapter represents a gene.
“What the CRISPR mechanism does is open a book or a chapter,” he says. “It can change individual letters in the chapter or put in an edited version of that chapter. [Contrasted with GMOs], you can’t even hit the chapter — you might even end up six books down.”
Further, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced earlier this year that the agency wouldn’t force the same regulatory oversights on these new techniques that GMOs currently face, meaning new crop varieties should be available cheaper and quicker than GMOs.
And with that, the recipe is ripe for mass disruption.
Our advice? Follow a new playbook
What do these changes mean to farming? Throw away the old low-cost, bulk-commodity playbook. You, or your kids, could be growing new crops from seeds improved through gene editing. Or maybe you’re only buying seed once every five or 10 years, because all your crops are now perennials. You could be collecting data to share your farming techniques with end-users and getting paid for it.
You might use microbials, precision ag, multiple crop sensors and drones for precision spot applications. Or you might partner with retailers to grow indoor leafy greens, or industrial, organic or specialty crops on contract. You’ll manage production at a much higher level and get paid for it. And instead of low cost, you’ll focus on relationships, because relationships will be king.
“We’re shifting from purely commodity base to business model innovation — new kinds of unique partnerships to create what could be called new niche categories — differentiation that isn’t necessarily organic,” DiNicola says. “It will require a shift in mindset.”
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