Opportunities outweigh challenges: Crop gene editing and the food system
DENVER — Investments in gene editing tools for agricultural crops have heated up in recent years and will only intensify in 2019. The technology is increasingly recognized as game-changing, and according to a new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division, it has the potential to live up to the hype.
“The low cost of gene-editing technologies position them as viable solutions to critical food system challenges including agricultural labor and water shortages, disease and chemical resistance, climate change, food waste and food security,” said Crystal Carpenter, senior economist, specialty crops, CoBank. “These technologies are relatively new and do face potential challenges, particularly with consumer acceptance. However, barring widespread rejection by consumers, gene editing will be a significant boon to producers, food and agriculture supply chains and allied industries in the years ahead.”
Gene editing differs from traditional GMO technologies. Perhaps most notably, gene-editing does not typically involve introducing a gene from another species. The resulting genetic makeup is one that could be achieved in nature or via traditional non-GMO techniques. Gene editing is comprised of a suite of technologies that make precise and targeted changes to DNA.
Gene editing is also quicker, more precise and less costly than GMO technologies, according to Carpenter. Varieties developed using gene editing typically take three to five years to develop, versus 10 to 15 years for transgenic GMOs and more than 10 years for mutagenesis and cross breeding. Developing a variety using traditional GMO techniques typically costs more than $100 million. With gene editing, it can potentially cost less than $10 million, and in some cases much less.
“Given its low cost and shorter development timeframe, and with the potential of greater consumer acceptance, gene-editing is seeing a growing share of research dollars,” said Carpenter. “Gene editing is not seen as a replacement to GMO techniques, but rather another tool in the toolbox.”
Commercialization of gene-edited crops is intensifying. An estimate from the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University suggests that 20 new gene-edited crops will become available in the U.S. in the next five years.
Examples of gene-editing technologies include CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nucleases). CRISPR is the latest technology. It is lower cost, quicker, simpler and easier to use, and has fewer intellectual property restrictions than other gene-editing technologies.
The potential benefits of gene-editing technology are vast. Scientists are continually improving the technology and uncovering new applications to resolve some of agriculture’s greatest challenges. Examples of specific benefits gene editing technologies can provide are plentiful.
From a nutritional and food safety standpoint, the technology brings the potential to produce peanuts with reduced allergens and sweet potatoes with more beta carotene. From an environmental sustainability standpoint, gene editing holds the promise of developing tomatoes that are resistant to powdery mildew, which could save billions of dollars and eliminate the need for spray applications of fungicides. Increased crop resistance to other common diseases reduces the need for chemical applications and water use.
Gene editing tools bring opportunities for reduced food waste through greater harvest efficiency and produce with extended shelf lives. They can also deliver taste and function benefits. Enhanced flavor tomatoes, naturally decaffeinated coffee and sugarcane with higher biofuel conversion rates are representative of the specific applications of gene editing tools and the corresponding benefits.
“Gene editing opens the door for historic crop improvements in the specialty crop sector,” said Carpenter. “Costly and time-intensive traditional GMO techniques have created barriers to entry for smaller companies and small-acreage crops. As a result, the pace of improvement in the specialty crop sector has lagged behind that of many other crops.”
The Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture indicates the key in gaining acceptance for gene editing is establishing consumer trust and making sure gene-edited products offer benefits that are highly important to consumers. Developing a strategy to gain global understanding and acceptance of gene editing technology is the core mission of the coalition, a program of the Center for Food Integrity.
The level of consumer acceptance is most important to the future pace of innovation and adoption rates of gene-edited foods. However, a lack of widespread consumer acceptance won’t stop research, innovation and commercialization. Nevertheless, the pace of innovation within food crops, including specialty crops, stands to be impacted by consumer acceptance more than crops used for animal feed or industrial inputs.
Comparatively, adoption rates of GMO corn and soy are above 90 percent in the U.S., despite opposition by some consumers and the high cost of development. Gene editing resolves one of the key issues with GMO products by excluding the use of a transgene. Challenges that are far less important but still notable involve regulatory and intellectual property issues.
“Gene editing has the potential to be a game-changer for the food system by making notable improvements in nutrition, food safety and security, the environment, and farm profitability,” said Carpenter. “Ultimately, the widespread adoption and success of these tools will hinge on the industry’s ability to develop these tools in a responsible way, and transparent communication about the technology and the benefits that matter most to consumers.”
A video synopsis, and the full report, “Gene Editing: A Potential Game Changer for Crop Agriculture and Specialty Crops,” are available at cobank.com.
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