Is Gene Editing the Key to Sustainability in an Era of Food Insecurity?

In the realm of agricultural science, the advent of gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has opened up new frontiers. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we cultivate crops, breed livestock, and even the way we consume food. From enhancing disease resistance to improving nutritional value, gene editing holds promise for addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing global food security.

Gene editing encompasses a suite of biotechnological methods enabling precise modifications, deletions, insertions, or replacements of DNA within living organisms' genomes. These techniques offer unprecedented accuracy and predictability, surpassing the capabilities of traditional breeding approaches. Among the most prevalent gene-editing tools stands the CRISPR-Cas system, acclaimed for its efficiency, accessibility, and affordability. Additional methodologies include Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) and Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs).

The alterations achieved through gene editing often mimic naturally occurring genetic variations induced by conventional breeding or mutation processes, presenting a challenge for regulatory bodies in terms of detection and oversight.

Gene editing harbors transformative potential across various facets of the food and feed supply chain. Notable applications include:

Enhanced Disease and Pest Resistance: Gene editing can fortify plants and animals against diseases and pests, reducing reliance on chemical interventions. Examples include mitigating diseases like blue ear in pigs, lice infestations in aquaculture, and bacterial blight in rice. Climate

Resilience and Environmental Sustainability: Gene editing can yield crops resilient to climate stressors such as drought and extreme temperatures. Furthermore, it has the potential to decrease environmental impact by curbing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Improved Nutritional Profiles: Gene editing facilitates the enhancement of crop nutritional content, leading to leaner meats, increased iron and vitamin levels in cereals, and the development of novel protein sources for animal feed.

Numerous gene-edited crops are under development, with several already approved for commercialization. Examples include disease-resistant banana and coffee varieties with reduced caffeine content, oilseed rape, rice, and potato with herbicide and disease tolerance, and improved-tasting raspberries and blackberries with extended shelf life.

Societal and Regulatory Considerations

Regulatory frameworks for gene editing vary globally, with countries like the USA and Canada focusing on resultant traits rather than the editing process. Conversely, the EU treats gene editing similarly to traditional genetic modification. Building public trust in gene editing hinges on demonstrating its benefits while maintaining transparency in its food and feed applications.

Banana production is crucial for local economies and food security worldwide. However, the crop is threatened by the fungus Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), which could potentially wipe out the Cavendish variety, accounting for nearly 50% of global banana production.

Gene editing offers a potential solution to this problem. For example, the UK biotech company, Tropic Biosciences, is using gene editing to produce bananas that disrupt TR4 virulence. Meanwhile, researchers in Australia are using gene editing to activate a dormant gene in the Cavendish banana that confers resistance to TR4.

Looking ahead to 2050, gene editing has the potential to fundamentally transform our food system. It could allow us to shift to a healthier and more environmentally sustainable diet, reduce food mileage, enable carbon capture, and more. However, the future of gene-edited crops depends on the effective governance of national and international regulatory, policy, and socioeconomic landscapes. It is crucial that policies are made, and social license granted, to support the use of gene-editing technologies and genome-edited crops to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the general population.

The revolutionary impact of gene editing on the future of food is only just beginning to be realized. With prudent regulation, public trust, and continued innovation, gene editing holds the potential to transform our food systems for the better.

Farmers Voices