Over the past few years, there has been a surge of initiatives intended to bring our energy base and business practices into accord with the needs of our natural systems. The European Union announced its Green Deal in December 2019, the new Biden administration has unrolled a sweeping array of initiatives on climate change and environmental protection in its first 100 days, and around the world, nations such as Japan and even China have established goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and curtail environmentally harmful practices. Agriculture is a profoundly important sector with regards to the health of ecosystems as recognized by the Farm to Fork initiative in the Green Deal, and the sector most vulnerable to the ever-increasing stresses imposed by changing climate.
These promising initiatives recognize that agriculture sits at the nexus of a suite of environmental impacts. If we are to feed the world without further inflicting further environmental harm, farming has to adapt. Reshaping how farmers think of crop protection is central to these initiatives. Fortunately, a new technology called precision gene editing is proving that it can improve and preserve yields, meet the challenges of climate change, and reduce environmental impacts. Indeed, a landmark study released by the European Commission on April 30 deemed gene editing and related breeding technologies essential to meeting the goals of the Farm to Fork initiative.
The Profound Challenge: Improving Yields While Protecting Natural Systems
Resolving the competing claims of increasing yields while reducing impacts will not be easy. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of human demands on fresh water. Without improving our water-use efficiency, any increase in that percentage (or even in human demands) will come at the expense of wildlife and ecosystems. Similarly, further expansion of agricultural lands will come at the expense of wildlands. Runoff of fertilizers from farms spurs algal blooms in rivers, lakes, and oceans, while pesticides and fungicides negatively impact neighboring lands and wildlife. If agriculture is going to feed an additional two billion people without further exacerbating these stresses, it’s going to have to increase yields with more efficient use of water and land, and less use of chemical inputs. In fact, the Farm to Fork goal for such chemical inputs is a 50% reduction by 2030.
Adding to the stress on farmers, they are being called on to increase yields and protect the environment even as climate changes make it harder to maintain present production. These stresses include more frequent and intense droughts, floods, and windstorms — not to mention the second order impacts of wildfires and outbreaks of pests, such as the locust swarms now bedeviling Africa and Asia.
Finally, all these agricultural challenges will have to be met while still improving farmer incomes. If farmers cannot see the economic benefit in the required adaptations, they won’t adopt them. Many simply cannot afford to pay more for a crop unless they see an increase in income to justify the additional expense.
The Next Agricultural Revolution
As recognized by the European Commission study, precision gene editing will play a crucial role in enabling farmers to meet all these challenges. It involves editing a plant’s genes associated with traits, such as disease resistance or drought tolerance. As such, it exactly mimics how such traits emerge during natural selection or traditional plant breeding — with the only difference being that in nature the mutations are random, while in gene editing the scientists know where they are going.
Gene editing may sound straightforward, but in many cases, a trait will involve several genes in different parts of the genome — posing insurmountable problems for all other breeding technologies. Gene editing can make several such edits simultaneously, while all other technologies make changes one at a time: a process that becomes impossibly burdensome if several such changes need to be made. Because gene editing operates exclusively within the genome of a plant and never introduces any foreign genetic material, it is classified as non-GMO. The distinguished scientific journal Nature deemed the results of this technology editing “indistinguishable” from traits produced in nature.
For instance, Cibus, the agricultural biotech company where I am founder, just announced successful field trials of a canola plant resistant to white mold, a fungus that can reduce yields in a plant by as much as 50%. Breeders have been trying to produce durable resistance for over 30 years, but have struggled. At Cibus, there remain steps to producing a plant ready for commercial release, but the field trials already validate the approach Cibus has taken.
The environmental benefits of a fungus-resistant plant are manifold. First, it will allow farmers to reduce their use of fungicide, which can become toxic to a wide range of organisms in soil and water. Second, the reduction of fungicides will help restore fungi diversity in soil, which provides a natural check on any one pathogen exploding in numbers. This helps prevent the development of fungicide-resistant molds (which is crucial for human health, as fungi can jump from the farm to humans). Third, the genetic pathways of disease resistance in canola are quite similar to those for other fungi, and also to the disease pathways in other cereals such as rice and soybean. Finally, understanding the genetics of disease resistance turns out to be very useful in understanding the genetics of water efficiency in plants, which opens the door to developing drought-resistant crops.
For farmers, the virtues of a disease-resistant canola translate into better yields, higher incomes, and less use of fossil fuels. Cost of fungicide, fuel, and machinery operators to deliver it amount to about 8% of a typical canola farmer’s operating costs. Add in reduced use and applications of fertilizer and herbicide (other traits enabled by gene editing), and farmer operating costs can be reduced by over 20%, all while reducing impacts on soil and water and cutting greenhouse gases.
All things being equal, farmers want to do right by the environment, their land and its health — which are all critical to their success. Still, the fastest way to spread environmentally sound farm practices is to make them attractive to farmers from an economic perspective. That’s both the reality and the promise of precision gene editing, and that’s why we believe that this new, proven technology will have a major role to play in agriculture going forward. Indeed, I fully expect that precision gene editing will be the technology that powers the next, much needed, agricultural revolution.