In the next 30 years, the world’s farmers have a significant challenge ahead of them: feed an additional two billion people, all while adapting to climate change and little arable land. New advances in gene editing can enable the agricultural community to meet those challenges, but its deployment has been slowed by a number of misconceptions about how this technology works.
Like many scientific advances before it, gene editing was bound to elicit both deep excitement and scrutiny because it presents an opportunity to change something we once considered permanent. These game-changing gene-editing advances in medicine show that our society’s stance on the field may be shifting. But it also shows the number of public misconceptions that we still must address in agriculture in order to meet the demands of a growing population and climate change.
MISCONCEPTION ONE: GENE EDITING IS NEW IN AGRICULTURE
Over the past 10,000 years, all agricultural progress to create better crops has involved gene editing. We just didn’t know it at first.
In nature, we see mutations in plant’s DNA driven by natural causes, helping crops evolve and adapt to surroundings. When the changes are desirable — such as producing more robust fruit — plant breeders can exploit that change and breed more of the crop with the “altered” DNA. You may recall the work of Gregor Mendel from an early biology classes — the Austrian monk who identified and formalized different plant breeding techniques.
It’s true that plant breeding has taken several digressions, most notably in GMO crops to speed development of a particular trait, such as resistance to insect pests. Scientists develop transgenic plants by inserting DNA from an unrelated organism to achieve a desired result in less time than past methods of breeding. These hybrids and varieties have come to dominate certain crops such as corn and soybeans, though some consumer and social media groups have shown concern that introducing foreign genes into a plant might come with unintended consequences. As a result, there has been strong desire to return to plant breeding techniques that do not incorporate foreign genes.
MISCONCEPTION TWO: ALL GENE EDITING IS CLASSIFIED AS ‘GMO’
In some applications, gene editing does involve introducing foreign DNA into a plant’s genome. But this approach is just a small subset of the incredibly broad gene-editing field. Another subset — precision gene editing — does not involve integrating any foreign genetic material at any stage of breeding a new plant.
With our more comprehensive understanding of genetics, paired with new cutting-edge technologies like DNA cutters (e.g., CRISPRs) and oligonucleotides (e.g., GRONs), we are now able to edit a plant’s DNA at a very specific point. Scientists can now identify and edit the exact part of the genome that would be changed in nature to create the optimized crop, using a mix of clever organic chemistry and new tools. This approach has proven itself in the lab, the greenhouse and even the field — creating crops that are indistinguishable from those found in nature.
Had such tools been available 40 years ago, it’s doubtful that GMOs would have ever taken off. Precision gene editing accomplishes the same objective, but without chance and without the insertion of any foreign DNA.
MISCONCEPTION THREE: EDITING IN A LAB IS STILL CONCERNING
Even without introduction of foreign genetic material, some feel gene editing should be treated the same as GMO because the edits occur in a lab. But I’m here to tell you that eliminating the lab from the production of crops is simply not practicable, especially given the dramatic need we face for feeding our growing population. This standard would even eliminate many food crops produced by traditional plant breeding. Nearly all the potatoes we eat, for instance, are grown from seed that has gone through an essential “clean-up” in labs, during which technicians use tissue culture to get rid of viruses and bacteria.
Similarly, there are the questions of the so-called “escapes:” edits gone wrong that escape the lab and wreak havoc. Outside of science fiction, these outcomes are all-but-impossible. Edits are performed at the level of a single cell, and it takes extraordinary care to nurture these edited cells beyond microscopic form, since none are able to survive on their own. All cells undergo screening and gene sequencing to ensure that only those with the specific desired changes are taken to the greenhouse. With these precautions, we can control exactly which plants ultimately leave the lab.
MISCONCEPTION FOUR: GENE EDITING WILL ONLY HELP ‘BIG AG’
Finally, there are fears that gene editing will increase the stranglehold that agricultural giants exercise over food production. In fact, the exact opposite is true — the speed, ease, and low cost of the technology levels the agricultural playing field. The new technology can produce new traits ten times faster, at one tenth the cost of transgenic approaches, with a more efficient regulatory path. This removes the need to spend $100 million to develop a new trait, and, in turn, reduces the barrier to entry for a host of smaller companies attempting to improve the world’s crops.
The public and policymakers are right to be cautious about any new technology — gene editing, or otherwise. However, gene editing offers the chance to accomplish what we once thought of as impossible. We cannot have our own misconceptions bar us from enacting real change, especially when feeding an impending 2 billion lives is at stake.