Short-stature corn that withstands severe windstorms. Wheat that copes with droughts. Rice that can grow in saltier soil. Sorghum that uses water more efficiently in a hotter climate. Plant varieties with built-in resistance to fungi.
These are just a few of the crops that scientists are improving through gene editing, a technique first demonstrated only 11 years ago. While such technology has already made remarkable strides in medicine—like the world’s first approved CRISPR therapy for sickle cell disease—its ability to revolutionize food and farming is no less profound. The stakes are high: The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has announced that this year is on track to be the hottest in recorded history. Extreme weather threatens harvests around the world. As the planet warms, gene editing is one of our greatest hopes for developing resilient crops that allow for adaptation.
Yet a warming planet and the advances of genomic technologies in other industries have notled to the widespread embrace of a new paradigm for crop breeding in agriculture. To get the most out of these technologies, we need a regulatory framework that keeps up with the science—and we need to take the public along for the journey.
The pressure is rising for farmers around the world to grow enough food to meet demand, even as many crops are lost to withering heat waves, torrential rain, and punishing droughts. With the population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, food security is in the spotlight at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates, and the benefits of gene editing should be a central part of that conversation. We don’t have the time that traditional crop breeding takes—upwards of a decade—to make the crops we rely on better adapted to a hotter planet. Gene editing shortens that time frame to months, because it allows plant scientists to make precise changes to a specific area of the crop’s genome.
Yet too often the science has outpaced policy. In Europe, where I have lived for much of my career, the technology of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is still not welcomed, even though studies consistently demonstrate the safety of the foods already on the market, some for more than three decades. (While gene editing crops is relatively recent, genetically modified foods date back to the early 1990s and involve the transfer of DNA from one organism into another to confer specific advantages, like insect resistance; gene editing, meanwhile, enables scientists to change a crop’s genome directly.)
Earlier this year, the EU announced a proposal to allow for gene editing in crops, recognizing the importance of the method for adapting to climate change as quickly as possible. Although the proposal is hampered by bureaucratic dictates (like arbitrarily limiting the number of genetic modifications that can be made, even in complex staple crops like wheat, soy, and potatoes), this is important progress. Climate change is hitting Europe hard. I hope the continent’s farmers will not be at a disadvantage to their counterparts in the U.S., Canada, China, Argentina, and Brazil—all countries that have regulatory frameworks that support this kind of innovation.
In Africa, regulators also must consider the potential of the emerging technology. Many of the continent’s key crops, like maize, cassava, sorghum, and bananas, suffer from drought and disease that are bound to worsen as the planet warms. Scientists at universities in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Ghana, and Ethiopia are studying how to incorporate resistance traits via gene editing, as well as improvements to nutrition and stress tolerance. On a policy level, the continent has made progress on allowing GMOs. Kenya and Nigeria have also introduced regulatory guidelines for gene editing. Twenty-five African countries import most of their wheat from Russia or Ukraine, with the ongoing war disrupting their food supply; allowing more gene editing could help regions be less reliant on these imports.
The U.S. is among the most open-minded countries to new genomic techniques, and this year we saw the first CRISPR food come to market. It’s a salad mix with the nutritional density of dark leafy greens, edited to have the mild flavor of romaine. But it’s one product, in limited release. Bayer is investing heavily in the new possibilities of biology, including a new cover crop that could deliver feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel, and soybeans with resistance against the Asian soybean rust, which would require fewer fungicide treatments.
Just as regulatory systems too often lag behind the science, consumer attitudes also have yet to catch up. The lingering hesitation over GMOs highlights the pitfalls industry needs to avoid: 36% of U.S. consumers say they know nothing or very little about GMOs and, despite their low level of knowledge, 47% say they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat.
In fact, there is no credible evidence that eating genetically modified foods causes adverse health effects. The few studies of GMOs that have suggested safety concerns were found to have methodological defects that invalidate their conclusions. Yet the stigma persists: Some people fear GM foods for being unnatural and therefore unhealthy, but this is a fallacy. Many things that are natural are dangerous, like radiation or arsenic, while GMO crops are 99.99% identical in composition to the original.
Globally, gene editing is a critical tool. Access to it should be democratized so that all farmers and consumers can reap its benefits. It will take time and is not the only tool we need to radically reform agriculture in the face of climate change. In fact, farmers need a whole toolbox of innovative solutions to do their job in a harsher environment. A recent discovery with microbes, for example, enables plants to convert atmospheric carbon into permanent soil nutrients while also improving soil health so that farms can become mega-factories of carbon removal at scale.
We must not shy away from the use of biotech tools in agriculture, but rather deploy them rationally and transparently. CRISPR will allow for better-quality food with more sustainable production. For example, a label could be added to seed bags that includes information about the use and advantages of gene editing. I am convinced that increasing transparency is the way to increase trust. Let’s allow people to make choices that are good for their health and the planet.
At COP28 this week, I am proud to be leading a team advancing agricultural solutions. I also know that technology alone is not enough. We must communicate with clarity and conviction so that our tools can gain broad acceptance. Breakthroughs can only move the needle as much—or as little—as society allows.
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