Analysis: Public must support gene-editing revolution

Gene editing has the potential to change agriculture, but only if consumers believe it’s a beneficial technology

Experts believe gene editing of crops has more potential than genetic modification or conventional plant breeding.

That’s the finding of a University of Saskatchewan research paper, published March 4.

It’s important that experts, academics, government officials and agri-business professionals believe in the power of gene-editing technology, but their opinion really doesn’t matter.

Gene editing will become the next big thing in plant science, crop development and agriculture only if the public accepts the technology.

The best way and maybe the only way to get the public onside is to give them food traits and crop attributes they want.

“If you like avocados and you don’t want them to be brown and you choose a gene-edited avocado because of that, you’re just not going to care about gene-edited tilapia, or soybeans or whatever. You’re just going to forget about it,” said Jack Bobo, vice-president of global policy and government affairs with Intrexon, an American firm that produces a number of biotech products, including the non-browning Arctic Apple.

“That’s the approach we take at Intrexon. If you give people products that they want to love, the conversation is over.”

The University of Saskatchewan survey carried out in early 2018 talked to 114 people who work in plant science and biotechnology.

The online survey asked experts about the potential benefits of gene-edited crops, compared to crops developed with genetic modification or conventional plant breeding.

Gene editing, using a technique called CRISPR, has been touted for years as the next big thing in plant science. It allows researchers to precisely change genes in a targeted area of a plant’s DNA.

That’s different from GM technology, or transgenics, where DNA from another species is added to a plant’s DNA.

The regulatory cost of gene editing should be much lower than GM crops and the technology is much faster than conventional breeding.

“The primary finding of this (survey) is that there is a consensus among experts on the expected greater agronomic performance and product quality of site-specific edited crops — those free from foreign DNA will be more competitive than GM and (conventional breeding) counterparts,” the U of S scientists wrote in the paper, published in Transgenic Research.

“Such new crops have the potential to deliver a greater diversity of traits and varieties in a quicker and less costly way.”

Near the end of the paper, a paragraph summarizes the genetically modified versus gene-edited discussion.

“Gene editing has a chance to progress faster than GM but only because of perception and political issues … not because it’s better,” one survey respondent said.

Put another way, gene editing and ag biotech can thrive but only if the public believes they are beneficial technologies.

Bobo made that point several times while speaking last month at the United States Department of Agriculture outlook forum in Washington, D.C.

“If you have kids and you send apple slices to school with your kids … people understand that consumer benefit,” he said, referring to the Arctic Apple.

The non-browning apple also reduces food waste, a simple and tangible benefit that’s easy to understand.

“Apples are the third-most wasted food item in America. About 40 percent of all apples are wasted,” Bobo said.

So, when it comes to public acceptance of gene editing, what really matters is how this technology is used.

If companies use it primarily to develop traits like herbicide tolerance or fertilizer use efficiency in crops, gene editing technology is pretty much doomed.

But if the agri-food sector focuses on traits for consumers, maybe a wheat that contains more iron, zinc and other minerals, gene editing and modern agriculture could flourish.

The counter-argument is that agriculture needs to rely on sound science and then convince the public to trust the science of modern agriculture.

In 2016, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world (500 Nobel Prize winners have been members), published a 587-page report on genetically modfied crops. After reviewing relevant data, the academy “found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE (genetically engineered) crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”

Such a report should have ended the conversation about the safety of GM food.

It didn’t.

In 2015, food products with a Non-GMO Project verified label recorded sales of $8.5 billion.

By 2018 sales had reached $26 billion.

Sound science doesn’t matter to many members of the public.

What does matter is a canola oil that makes mayonnaise tastier and healthier.

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