Gene-edited crops can boost global food security, researchers say

By Joan Conrow

March 29, 2019

Gene editing can make a significant contribution to global food security, in part by improving the “orphan crops” that are locally important to good nutrition, according to an article in Science.

Additionally, the agricultural advances that can be realized through CRISPR and other new plant breeding technologies (NPBTs) are crucial to reducing poverty in developing nations, where rural families depend on farming for their food and livelihoods, according to the perspective published today in Science.

“A world without hunger is possible but only if food production is sustainably increased and distributed and extreme poverty is eliminated,” state the article’s seven authors, who are researchers in institutions based in Belgium, Pakistan, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

The article explains that plant scientists are now achieving results by editing the crop genome, as opposed to transferring genes across species to achieve desired traits. As a result, these “new technologies may allay fears” related to genetically modified transgenic crops, while allowing improved seeds to be developed more quickly, and at prices affordable to smallholder farmers in developing nations.

“We anticipate that CRISPR-Cas technologies, in combination with modern breeding methods, will play an important role in future crop improvement programs, but other technologies for genomic prediction and selection will also remain important,” the authors write.

The low cost of gene editing can also lead to improvements in the so-called “orphan” crops that are regionally important to health, food security and rural incomes, the article states. These crops have typically been ignored by multinational companies that have developed GM commodity crops.

The authors argue that “careful deployment and scientifically informed regulation” will allow NPBTs to “contribute substantially to global food security.”

Public-private partnerships are one way to help NPBTs move forward, particularly in more advanced developing nations, which could then export improved seeds and produce to less developed nations, the authors suggest.

The article highlights Bangladesh, which has approved pest-resistant Bt eggplant (brinjal) and is moving forward with field trials in another three GM crops, as “a global model for addressing hunger and malnutrition through modern technology.” The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project was also noted for its work in developing drought-tolerant maize varieties for farmers in several African nations.

However, the authors caution, it is critical to implement “a renewed effort and strategy” to aid the development and adoption of gene-edited crops and other NPBTs. “Learning lessons from the past, the strategy should be based on transparent communication, training of researchers and other stakeholders in the innovation system, and efficient, informed regulation,” they opine.

Though a European Court of Justice ruling that subjects gene-edited crops to the same regulations as GM crops was “disappointing,” the authors write, the more relaxed approach taken by the United States and Japan “is expected to set the ground for a new paradigm that could lead to more efficient regulation internationally.”

Image by CreativeCommons.