Climate change, population growth, and the rising demand for energy, water, and land are long-term issues threatening our global food security. Until we have a solution, we must continue to ask how can we feed a future 9 billion people equitably, healthily and sustainably?
We can turn to science and technology, more specifically biotechnology, to help provide practical solutions to tackle these long-run challenges. One solution could be precision breeding. Unlike traditional (costly, time-consuming and random) genetic engineering, precision plant breeding tools allow simple and targeted changes in the genome to improve crop varieties. Not only are targeted genetic tweaks more accurate and cost effective but also ubiquitously applicable to various crops (cereals, vegetables, fruits, etc.) that cannot be improved by conventional breeding. According to the scientific community, the application of new precision breeding techniques led by genome editing can be an effective sustainable and timely solution to meet rising global food demand. As with most biotechnological innovations, particularly those related to food, countries assimilate or reject them based on their distinct socio-economic perspectives and political realities.
Genome editing refers to targeted or site-specific mutations that consist of either gene deletion (undesirable traits) or the introduction of genes (valuable traits) into the plants’ genome. As such, depending on the nature and extent of intervention, genome editing yields transgenic—also called genetically modified or GM (produced by the incorporation of one or more genes from another species) or non-transgenic (comparable to conventional) outcomes. Regulation of these outcomes is expected to differ and is beyond the scope of this one blog. This is a very important clarification to keep in mind when reading what follows.
Experts’ insights: Is genome editing a risk or opportunity?
In an effort to better understand the opportunities and challenges surrounding the development of modern biotechnologies, we surveyed experts with respect to emerging breeding technologies. This panel includes scientists, government officials and agribusiness professionals involved in plant biotechnology from around the world. The panel has been surveyed on several topics surrounding novel biotechnologies. Most recently, I along with my co-authors have published on the benefits and risks related to the use of genome editing in plant breeding as identified by experts, in which this blog further explores.
Regardless of where they live, the majority of the 100+ biotech experts surveyed agree on the overall safety of site-edited crops for the environment (71%), human health (75%) or society (76%) . Experts strongly believe that non-transgenic genome edited crops (i.e. free from foreign genetic material) offer benefits for both farmers and consumers . These new crops have a great agronomic performance in terms of resistance to diseases, drought tolerance and resilience to climate change. They can also deliver a better product quality when it comes to nutrition, processing qualities, shelf-life and storability. Soybeans with improved oil profiles, fish with enhanced muscle, tomatoes with enhanced flavor qualities, and non-browning potatoes, white mushrooms and apples illustrate some food benefits of genome editing.
The highlighted benefits above can be derived in a quicker and less costly way compared to breeding through GM or conventional methods. This is owing to the accuracy and precision of genome editing technology that some say could help save years of development time and lower the cost to produce certain traits in crops .
Risk or opportunity, it’s all up to the consumer in the end
Despite their potential and already perceived benefits from the expert standpoint, acceptance or rejection of genome edited crop depends—in large—on consumer response to modern biotechnologies. Public understanding of the difference between non-transgenic genome edited crops and GM crops is key for the development of the technology. However, communicating the science around the benefits and risks to consumers becomes more challenging with the rapidly evolving technological advancements in genomics and molecular biology. It is also well documented that the public generally tends to disagree with scientific experts over a number of technological topics including the safety of biotechnology, vaccination and ecological-related questions. As such, further research is needed to better grasp how consumer acceptance of genome edited crops evolves and whether experts have any say in how or where targeted technologies might be used in support of better food outcomes.