Foodtech

Gene editing overtakes nature: it’s time to create better crops

Gene editing overtakes nature: it’s time to create better crops

Can new agricultural gene-editing techniques provide solutions to the climate crisis and feed humanity?

Thanks to biotechnology, agriculture has achieved previously unattainable goals. It is said that nature is wise because it comes up with fascinating and innovative solutions, but it is also slow. It has its own rhythm. Faced with the challenge of accelerated climate change, technological innovation becomes necessary, as a European Commission report on the use of gene editing concludes.

More and more experts are highlighting the importance of gene editing techniques in agriculture, without which it will be impossible to feed the population. Technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 are gaining a foothold in organic farming, although there is considerable regulatory resistance to the use of more sustainable techniques in Europe.

Gene editing to date

Until recently, gene editing consisted of some sort of trial and error, with more suitable species being discovered by mistake rather than intentionally. In contrast, technologies such as CRISPR have proven to be highly targeted precision tools. Conventional plant breeding consisted of mutating specimens to make DNA changes or crosses between closely related species.

These methods, innovative at the time, have serious drawbacks, such as the time involved—usually decades—acting by trial and error, or reducing biodiversity. In addition, the objectives—such as finding a drought-resistant or more nutritious variety—are rarely achieved because they depend, in part, on chance.

What is CRISPR gene-editing technology?

Unlike mutagenesis and crossbreeding, new plant breeding techniques and gene editing enable the development of plants with stable yields, resistant to pests and environmental stress. They also make it easier to produce foods that help prevent diseases or make up for nutritional deficiencies, as well as to recover the biodiversity that we have extinguished.

CRISPR/Cas9 technology is at the heart of this new type of gene-editing crop. A kind of scissors with which to restore genes that were once present in food but have been disappearing in recent decades.

CRISPR/Cas9 uses an RNA molecule to guide an enzyme (Cas9) to a certain point in the genome. There, Cas9 cuts the DNA, removing part of it and putting a new piece of DNA in its place.

Antonio Granell, CSIC Research Professor at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants (IBMCP), mentioned in an interview that “gene editing is a continuation of traditional breeding procedures”, and that environmental objectives cannot be achieved without its use.

¿Why should ‘better’ crops be engineered?

Today’s crops, even those considered natural, have at least several millennia of gene editing. Mutagenesis, widely used and legally accepted in agriculture, is itself a type of gene editing in which DNA is mutated by radiation or chemical agents.

Over centuries, people have been innovating in agriculture to find the most resistant varieties. Today, this way of working is no longer sufficient.

On the one hand, climate change is the main factor in soil erosion, which turns previously arable land into wasteland. On the other hand, crops do not have time to adapt to the new climatic conditions and displaced species that eat them.

Thanks to gene editing, it will be possible to deal with several of these major challenges in parallel, some of which we have gathered in the report The Food of the Future, from our think tank, Future Trends Forum:

1. That crops can grow in extreme conditions, such as prolonged droughts or pests that were previously not present in the area and are a result of climate change.

2. Produce more food per hectare, which is necessary given that there is less and less arable space and the population continues to grow, two phenomena that could lead to famine.

Although they may seem futuristic, these problems of species displacement and climate change have been a problem for agriculture for decades.

Could Europe be lagging behind in organic farming?

Despite being proven as a safe technology, CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing techniques do not fit into European organic farming regulations. However, the European Commission study concludes that genetically modified organisms are necessary to overcome current and future challenges, and that the legislation banning them is outdated.

The fact that organic farming allows some gene edits but not others—CRISPR/Cas9—significantly limits its tools to meet human needs. The consensus, on the other hand, is that we will have to make use of all the technology at our disposal to feed the world.

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