Does the world even need genome-edited plants?
This question is often raised by opponents of modern breeding methods. As is almost always the case: The market provides an answer. And it looks pretty clear.
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Although genome editing with Crispr/Cas or similar methods has been available only for a few years, the number of applications is increasing rapidly. More and more genome-edited plants are currently pushing for approval and thus for the market. For example, a soy plant with a healthier oil composition has been grown in the USA since 2018. Last year the area under cultivation was 40,000 hectares, and the trend is rising. The reason: the benefits for consumers are obvious.
Countless market-oriented products
This genome-edited soy is just the beginning, as an overview in the specialist journal “Frontiers in Plant Science” from 2020 shows: By June 2019, the authors were able to identify a total of 140 genome-edited crops that can be classified as market-oriented. This means that the properties of the plants have been changed in such a way that they have a specific benefit for the producer or the end customer with the aim of launching them onto the market. The improved attributes of the plants range from agronomic properties such as more stable stalks to improved resistance to pests and diseases to greater tolerance to stress such as drought or wet conditions.
Many countries have outdated genetic engineering legislation. These laws are unsuitable for modern breeding methods and focus on transgenic products. However, genome editing has many applications that induce mutations within the species that could also arise spontaneously in nature. Such products are usually only insufficiently covered by the conventional definition of a genetically modified organism. In addition, they usually cannot be distinguished from plants grown using traditional methods. Science has simply overtaken legislation.
Risk-based approval instead of standstill
Some key countries have reacted and are regulating the new breeding methods separately. A risk- and product-based approval practice is often used. Unfortunately, many industrialized nations, especially in Europe, are still resisting such pragmatic, evidence-based legislation - with the corresponding effects on research and development there. In places where approval is handled liberally, such as in the US, one new plant per day is currently submitted to the authorities for approval. In 2020, 17 genome-edited plants were classified and approved as non-genetically modified organisms by the relevant US authorities. Examples include pines with stronger CO2 fixation or maize with improved yield and higher quality. The revolution that genome editing will trigger is only just beginning. It would be good if Switzerland, too, would pave the way for local researchers with liberal legislation so that their innovations can also develop their benefits for Swiss farmers, the Swiss processing industry, consumers and the environment.
At the end of October, swiss-food.ch hosted a film screening and panel discussion in Zurich on the subject of genome editing entitled “Between Protest and Potential”. The well-attended event dealt with the emotional debates in recent decades surrounding genetic engineering. The event showed that the situation has changed fundamentally.
To denigrate green genetic engineering, narratives that do not stand up to scrutiny keep popping up in the public debate. The aim in each case is political. Recently, the false claims are intended to prevent the regulation of new breeding methods such as Crispr Cas from being technology-friendly.
The science magazine "Einstein" of Swiss Television has addressed the new breeding methods. The report clearly shows that there is no way around these new methods if Switzerland wants to continue cultivating popular apple varieties such as Gala, Braeburn, and Golden Delicious.
In future, the EU wants to treat genome-edited plants in the same way as conventionally bred ones. As the "NZZ am Sonntag" writes, this is like a small revolution. Until now, the commercial use of gene scissors has been impossible due to an extremely restrictive genetic engineering law.