GMO and Genome Editing Science Continue to Advance Despite Continued Skepticism

Genetically modified crops have the potential, if widely adopted, to help feed the world and vastly change the crop input industry. To find out the latest on GMOs and genome editing, AgriBusiness Global interviewed Oliver Peoples, Ph.D., President and CEO of Yield10 Bioscience. Dr. Peoples provides a better understanding of the state of GMOs and what the industry can expect from this technology in the coming years.

Can you discuss the latest changes to GMO and genome editing science in crops and what the latest techniques being used are?
Humanity has been harnessing genetic diversity for thousands of years to develop better crops. GMO technology was simply a new tool for increasing the genetic diversity available to plant breeders by accessing genes from microbes. The reduction in pesticide use alone, which was achieved by using microbial genes for insect resistance in crops, (also used in organic farming), has been nothing short of remarkable. In my view, the use of genetic engineering technologies to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals is going to be an essential part of the future of sustainable food production. It’s the most powerful and honest “organic” tool we have. While some consumers may oppose the use of the term “organic” for genetically engineered food, it’s important to note that organic does not always constitute natural – since there is a long list of  products that are approved for use in organic farming, and there are often higher levels of fungal toxins on organic corn.

Advertisement

Oliver Peoples, Ph.D., President and CEO of Yield10 Bioscience

Now we have CRISPR for genome editing, the newest and simplest to use tool for genome editing. CRISPR allows scientists to specifically and precisely change any gene target in any genome. While the medical community harnessing its potential to cure human diseases, plant breeders are using this tool to develop targeted genetic variation in very specific plant genes, creating new crop traits. Now, because the regulatory body in the US, USDA-APHIS views this, correctly, as another breeding tool, they have established a lower-cost, faster approval process. As a result, a whole new range of food crops are being developed using CRISPR.  Many of these traits are directed towards improving crop nutritional profiles, catering to consumer interest in eating better as part of the health and wellness macro trend. Unlike the early versions of new crop traits where farmers were the target market, these CRISPR traits are focused on consumer preferences.

We expect the ag biotech toolbox to continue to evolve. For example, in a paper published in 2019, researchers from MIT and members of the Yield10 team described a new technique which utilizes nanotubes to deliver genes directly into the chloroplasts of plant cells, representing a potential new way to engineer plants that are more resilient to drought conditions and fungal infections.

Is the world becoming receptive of GM and genome edited foods or less so – Which way is the trend heading and why? How can the industry can share the positive benefits of GM and genome edited foods?
Like many new breakthrough technologies developed by modern society, there are always legitimate concerns in the absence of real data. Take the advent of cell phones for example, consumers used to be concerned that these devices were going to cause cancer however, studies have disproved this and now almost everyone over the age of 12 owns one. The initial concern was perfectly reasonable but over the years, even as the evidence of GMO safety continued to build, that initial legitimate concern was only heightened by anti-GMO marketing campaigns that failed to highlight new studies debunking GMO myths. Today, anti-GMO activity is perpetuated, in the public eye, by individuals who may be well-meaning but unaware of the stringent safety regulations that genetically modified foods are actually required to pass, or by individuals who stand to benefit financially from “non-GMO” labelling.

So unfortunately, yes, there is still some skepticism around genetically modified crops and some misinformation around the actual prevalence of GMO in food. GMO corn and soybean are primarily fed to livestock, have been studied extensively by National Academy scientists, refuting unfounded claims that GMO crops could negatively impact health. Reports consolidating studies from the last twenty years have found GMO crops are not only safe but may in many cases be safer. Genetic engineering tools including GMO and genome edited crops are essential to enhancing global food security by improving grain yield and crop resilience, enabling us to sustainably produce more and healthier food without requiring additional resources such as land, water, and pesticides. The industry needs to continue to emphasize the findings of these reports and further share the health benefits that biotech engineered foods can provide.

Increasingly we are seeing consumers embrace genetically modified foods at mealtime. For example, the increasingly popular meatless Impossible Burger, which is now being offered in restaurant chains such as White Castle and Burger King, which contains genetically modified soy gene as the means to reproduce the characteristic “flavor” of beef. Furthermore, some restaurants are now using cooking oils from genetically modified soybeans to produce an oil having a healthier fat profile to reduce heart disease.

CRISPR genome editing is opening up the deployment of new traits in fruits and vegetables such as apples, mushrooms, and potatoes, foods consumed directly by humans.

Where in the world are growers/consumers most receptive to GM products?
According to the USDA, the United States is the most receptive and best equipped country for genetic modification in crops. They also believe that there is potential in South America where new agricultural production areas are growing rapidly. The expansion of GMO soy in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, for example, has led these countries to now account for almost 50% of the world’s soy production.

How has the regulatory environment around GMOs and genome edited crops changed in the past couple of years?
The regulatory environment around GMOs has not changed dramatically for crops in the past few years, there is still a rigorous testing and review process, executed by the EPA, FDA and USDA, to ensure the safety and efficacy of these crops. These processes are both very expensive and time-consuming and not reflective of the scientific understanding we have today, so they need to be updated and streamlined.

On June 6th of this year, the USDA announced their intent to modernize biotechnology regulations with a proposed rule titled “Movement of Certain Genetically Engineered Organisms.” Based on the principles: Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient, the SECURE rule is intended to modernize the Department’s biotechnology regulations while maintaining a balance between protecting plant health and allowing agricultural innovation to thrive. The proposed changes would create new criteria regarding how decisions on regulations will be made, exemption of plants meeting secretary Perdue’ s criteria, relaxed rules for field growth of plants producing certain industrial products, and more. This is open for public review and comments for 60 days and is likely to continue to unfold throughout the rest of 2019.

Where do you see the regulatory environment going over the next few years and what’s driving those changes?
Based on recent advances in biotechnology combined with the safety track record of crops produced using biotechnology, regulatory agencies in many parts of the world are reassessing the framework for regulating biotech crops especially in light of pressures created by erratic weather patterns and concerns for food security. In the Americas, Australia, and parts of Asia and Africa, there appears to be growing interest in the performance and nutritional traits enabled through CRISPR genome editing. In Kenya for example, there is concern over security of the banana, a staple food crop, as climate change is negatively impacting production. While genetic modification in crops has traditionally been banned in Kenya, these security concerns are forcing legislators to take a second look at regulations banning GMO. In the EU, where planting GMO crops is essentially banned outside of Spain, over 20 European business organizations provided an open letter that calls upon member states and the EU Commission to drive legislative change to better support genetic modification in organisms to achieve sustainable development goals. Food security is likely the greatest driver as many countries start to find that in order to cater to the growing population and climate change implications faced by the agriculture industry.

How do GM and genome edited crops affect the use of crop inputs (both traditional and biological pesticides)?
Crop inputs are a staple in both the organic and traditional agricultural industry as traditional and biological pesticides are often used depending on the location, crop, etc. Genetic modification and genome editing have not yet become so advanced that the use of crop inputs is completely eliminated, however, researchers have been able to use genetic modification to enable certain crops to express naturally occurring genes that act as insecticides. For example, some crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans have been genetically engineered to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes, producing proteins that are active against certain insects. This has helped to reduce the use of conventional synthetic insecticides. We are likely to see more innovation in this area.

Do GM and genome edited crops affect the use of biostimulants?
Biostimulants are meant to be complementary to crop production and protection, and whether the crops are genome edited or genetically modified should not matter. Since genetic modification and genome editing are intended to also enhance performance, together these tools could help enhance the dependability of the global food supply.

Precision agriculture is a rapidly growing segment of the ag industry. Is there a role precision agriculture must play with GM and genome edited crops? And if so, how will this change over the next few years?
Precision agriculture is complimentary technology and has the potential to be used in tandem with GMO and genome edited crops such that all of the nutrients applied during planting are converted into harvested product maximizing crop yield and minimizing nutrient runoff. On its own, precision agriculture is giving farmers large access to data on soil and water quality, weather, and more, to help guide them on planting decisions. We expect that this will primarily be deployed during the planting or “investment phase” of the growing cycle to maximize nutrient addition to seed genetics and soil conditions. It’s harder to imagine it being used to address changes in growing conditions throughout the season for major row crops other than for disease monitoring. Production of, for example, fresh produce is a different situation where post planting intervention could be managed. So, combining this with GMO or genome edited crops with seeds that have been engineered to produce larger yield in adverse growing conditions gives the agriculture industry a much better chance at enhancing food supply and security.

What else should we know about GM and gene editing?
GMO technology has already had a significant impact on increasing productivity and yield in food and feed crops. In fact, recent studies have found that GM crops allow an increase in yield of 6%-25%. Going beyond the success of GMOs, now genome editing tools such as CRISPR are offering even more improved traits for both yield and composition that are going to shape the agricultural industry. Development of, and access to new traits has the potential to provide more diversity in crops providing growers with more options for their land and giving consumers foods with more attractive nutritional profiles. GM and genome editing are examples of biotechnology tools that can help us achieve global food security. The world’s population continues to grow and is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Innovation in the agricultural arena is necessary to overcome the traditional agricultural stressors including adverse weather, drought, climate change, pests and limited resources. In closing one key aspect of sustainability that should always be front and center is that the solutions we develop should be economically sustainable.