Philanthropist Bill Gates today strongly endorsed new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, saying they could help humanity overcome some of its “biggest and most persistent challenges” in global health and agriculture over the next decade.
“Eliminating the most persistent diseases and causes of poverty will require scientific discovery and technological innovations,” he wrote. “CRISPR makes the discovery and development of innovations much faster and more precise.”
In a statement released this morning, Gates advocated for the use of gene editing techniques to address pressing problems in agriculture, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been backing research into the use of gene editing for a decade, as well as medicine.
“The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor,” he wrote. “It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, nutritious, and hardy.”
Though some still hold fears about genetic engineering, “such alteration of the genomes of plants and even animals is not new,” he wrote. “Humans have been doing it for thousands of years through selective breeding. Scientists began recombining DNA molecules in the early 1970s, and today, genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture and in medicine to mass-produce human insulin, hormones, vaccines, and many drugs.
“New technologies are often met with skepticism,” he continued. “But if the world is to continue the remarkable progress of the past few decades, it is vital that scientists, subject to safety and ethics guidelines, be allowed to continue to take advantage of such promising tools as CRISPR.”
“This research can make a big difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people”
Gates also recounted a recent visit to the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health at the University of Edinburgh, where researchers are using the tools of genetic engineering “to help farmers in Africa breed more productive chickens and cows.” Projects include editing the genes of tropical dairy cows to increase milk production by as much as 50 percent, and the genes of Holsteins to grow a shorter, sleeker coat of hair that allows them to better tolerate heat.
“This sort of research is vital because a cow or a few chickens, goats, or sheep can make a big difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people, three-quarters of who get their food and income by farming small plots of land,” he wrote. “Farmers with livestock can sell eggs or milk to pay for day-to-day expenses. Chickens in particular tend to be raised by women, who are more likely than men to use the proceeds to buy household necessities. As readily available sources of nutrition, livestock help farmers’ families get the vitamins and minerals they need, setting children up for healthy growth and success in school.”
Gates also addressed the role of gene editing in boosting crop productivity to help reduce extreme poverty and support food security in developing nations, especially in the face of climate change.
“Sixty percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa earn their living by working the land. But given the region’s generally low agricultural productivity — yields of basic cereals are five times higher in North America — Africa remains a net importer of food,” he wrote. “This gap between supply and demand will only grow as the number of mouths to feed increases. Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2.2 billion. Its food production will need to match that growth to feed everyone on the continent. This challenge is likely to become even more difficult as a result of climate change, which figures to be devastating for the livelihoods of small-holder farmers in Africa and South Asia.
“Gene editing to make crops more abundant and resilient could be a lifesaver on a massive scale,” he continued. “It is already beginning to show results, attracting public and private investment for good reason. Scientists are developing crops with traits that enhance growth, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, boost nutritional value, and make plants hardier during droughts and hot spells. Already, a rich pipeline of crops that have been improved by gene editing are being developed and tested in the field: non-browning mushrooms, potatoes low in acrylamide (a potential carcinogen), soybeans that produce healthier oil, and much more.”
“Gene editing to make crops more abundant and resilient could be a lifesaver on a massive scale”
Gates also addressed some of the agricultural research that the BMGF has funded, including work at the University of Oxford to develop improved varieties of rice through the use of gene editing and other tools. One of the most promising is C4 Rice, which is 20 percent more efficient at photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into food — due to the cellular rearrangement of its leaves.
“The result is a crop that not only produces higher yields but also needs less water,” Gates wrote. “That’s good for food security, farmers’ livelihoods, and the environment, and it will also help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.”
Gates also weighed in on the regulatory process that should govern gene editing, noting that “rules developed decades ago for other forms of genetic engineering do not necessarily fit. Part of the challenge in regulating gene editing is that rules and practices in different countries may differ widely. A more harmonized policy environment would prove more efficient, and it would probably also raise overall standards. International organizations, especially of scientists, could help establish global norms.”
Gates concluded with a strong message about the need to ensure that people around the world have equal access to innovations like gene editing:
“The benefits of emerging technologies should not be reserved only for people in developed countries. Nor should decisions about whether to take advantage of them. Used responsibly, gene editing holds the potential to save millions of lives and empower millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity.”
The Alliance for Science is funded in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.