Nutrition: Does the future belong to the green gene scissors?

Nutrition: Does the future belong to the green gene scissors?

New plant varieties contribute to security of supply. The new breeding methods known as "gene scissors", such as Crispr, have the potential to revolutionise agriculture and nutrition.

Monday, April 8, 2024

This guest article was written by Markus Hardegger and Isabelle Schluep and was first published in «Volkswirtschaft» on 5 March 2024.

Markus Hardegger is Head of the Genetic Resources, Production Safety and Animal Feed Division at the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG).

Isabelle Schluep is a research assistant, International Trade in Goods Division, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), Bern.

The increase in agricultural productivity has led to an abundance of food and low prices. [1] Technological progress, international trade and the so-called green revolution were responsible for this: from the 1960s onwards, they led to the development of modern high-yielding varieties, which spread successfully around the world and led to increases in grain productivity. The regions of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Asia and the Pacific are examples of this development (see Figure 1).

Productivity as a driver of agriculture

However, this trend did not continue everywhere. Real agricultural productivity per capita (adjusted for inflation) has fallen at times in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Central and Eastern Europe [2]. While these two regions have since caught up again, current productivity in Western Europe (including Switzerland) is well below the peak of the 1980s (see Figure 1).

What is also worrying is that, according to analyses by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), global agricultural production grew more slowly between 2011 and 2020 than in any previous decade since 1961 (2011-2020: 1.93% per year; 2001-2010: 2.72% per year). This means that producers will have to cultivate more land and use other inputs such as fertilisers more intensively in the future in order to maintain agricultural production at today's level. [3] Population growth is increasing this pressure. In addition, land expansion has a negative impact on the environment (e.g. deforestation).

In Switzerland, land and capital productivity in agriculture fell between 1990 and 2000 due to the reorientation of agricultural policy, which largely involved the shift from price support to product-independent direct payments; since then, they have stagnated. [4] Instead, productivity per hour of labour has increased since the 2000s. It is, so to speak, «the engine of Swiss agriculture». As the agricultural production value stagnated, the volume of labour was gradually reduced with the help of technological progress so that income still increased in relation to the amount of work [5].

Plant breeding as the key

In Europe today, the population is well fed and the proportion of income spent on food has decreased. Therefore, the benefits of increasing productivity through innovation seem less relevant. As a result, the public debate on agriculture is rarely about how to increase production, but rather about nutritional (e.g. reducing food waste) and environmental concerns such as reducing the use of pesticides [6].

However, productive and sustainable agriculture counteracts dependencies on imports for feed and food. It also increases the level of self-sufficiency and generates income. In addition, innovative genetic improvement of crops demonstrably creates ecological advantages as well as socio-economic benefits. This is because plant breeding in all its variations is the most effective measure in crop production, for example to reduce the carbon footprint [7], and it helps to make crops resistant to diseases, pests and weather extremes such as drought. New plant varieties could also be used to overcome challenges in plant protection, such as the already implemented bans on old plant protection products or a backlog in the authorisation of new products.

In future, increasing the productivity of arable crops by developing efficient and resistant varieties is likely to play an even more important role, as the effectiveness of other crop and soil management measures - such as crop protection, fertilisers and crop rotation - is limited [8].

Source: Authors' own calculations based on data from the USDA (2023) and the World Bank (population indicator) / Die Volkswirtschaft
Source: Authors' own calculations based on data from the USDA (2023) and the World Bank (population indicator) / Die Volkswirtschaft

Crispr: precise, efficient and cost-effective

There has been a revolution in the field of plant breeding thanks to the so-called new genomic techniques (NGT). Their success is based on the fact that genetic material (DNA) can be modified in a targeted manner, no foreign DNA has to be introduced from outside as in traditional genetic engineering and the modification could also have been achieved under natural conditions through conventional cross-breeding. Accordingly, NGT products cannot be distinguished from those from conventional breeding. The molecular «gene scissors» Crispr/CAS (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is the best-known method of genome editing: it cuts through DNA while the repair of the cell removes individual or several DNA building blocks in the genome or replaces or adds individual building blocks. This changes certain properties or characteristics. In 2020, two researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of this new technology.

In contrast to conventional crossbreeding, NGTs produce precise, efficient and cost-effective plant varieties without any loss of yield. [9] Such varieties are climate and pest resistant, for example, or require less fertiliser and pesticides. [10] The technology could also be interesting for Switzerland: for example for mildew-resistant vines, fire blight-resistant apples, potatoes with resistance to late blight or wheat with reduced gluten content.[11] Not only the development costs, but also the development times would be massively reduced [12].

Rethinking green genetic engineering?

However, a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified plants containing foreign DNA has been in place in Switzerland since the referendum in November 2005. In 2022, Parliament extended the moratorium for the fourth time until 2025. At the same time, the Federal Council was instructed to submit a draft decree for a risk-based authorisation regulation for genetically modified crops by 2025. According to Parliament's mandate[13], NGTs must have «a proven added value for agriculture, the environment or consumers» compared to conventional varieties.

In the EU, a 2018 judgement by the European Court of Justice on NGTs made the technology subject to European genetic engineering law. Its process-oriented authorisation procedure is associated with extreme conditions that make cultivation almost impossible. However, in the summer of 2023, the EU Commission submitted a draft law for consultation that provides for a switch to product authorisation for NGT plants, thereby simplifying market approval: Administrative hurdles such as special labelling or a completely separate flow of goods are no longer envisaged. The scientific community agrees that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically modified plants are no more risky than conventionally bred plants. [14] In the USA, in several South American countries and in Australia, genetically modified plants are not subject to legal regulation as GMOs (see countries marked in dark green in Figure 2).

Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) / Die Volkswirtschaft
Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) / Die Volkswirtschaft

Promising potential

The new genomic techniques are promising in terms of increasing productivity, food security, agricultural income and reducing the environmental footprint. This is because they help to save land and reduce production losses – caused by pest infestation or drought, for example. As a result, they reduce CO2 emissions and lower water consumption. However, it remains to be seen whether the deregulation plans will be successful or whether green genetic engineering in Europe will remain a story of missed opportunities.

Social acceptance plays an important role here. This influences long-term investments in innovative varieties and the further development of breeding technologies. As NGTs are cost-effective, new companies could enter this market and stimulate competition if the right conditions are in place. The UK is leading the way: Thanks to its pragmatic authorisation practice for NGT plants, the country is at the forefront of (basic) research in the agricultural and food sector. In this country, parliament has yet to decide whether or not Switzerland will follow the international trend towards deregulation of new genomic technologies.



  1. See Fuglie et al.(2020).
  2. See Alston and Pardey (2014).
  3. See Morgan et al. (2022).
  4. See Agristat (2019), pp. 6-7.
  5. See Agristat (2019), pp. 6-7.
  6. See Noleppa and Cartsburg (2021).
  7. See Riedesel et al. (2022).
  8. See Noleppa and Cartsburg (2021).
  9. In conventional breeding (mutagenesis), gene changes are introduced into the plant DNA via radioactive irradiation, for example. This process is random and not targeted as in NGT.
  10. See EU Commission (2023).
  11. See Kümin et al. (2023).
  12. See Kock (2022).
  13. See Art. 37a para. 2 Gene Technology Act (GTG; SR 814.91).
  14. See an overview on the «Gene Technology Transparency» portal; the National Research Programme «Benefits and Risks of the Release of Genetically Modified Plants» (NRP 59) has also not identified any higher risks of GMOs for the environment.


  • Agristat (2019). Agristat 06-19 Monthly Statistical Bulletin. Development of agricultural productivity.
  • Alston, J.M. and P.G. Pardey (2014). Agriculture in the Global Economy. Journal of Economic Perspectives 28(1): 121-46.
  • EU Commission (2023). Frequently asked questions: Proposal on new genomic practices, published: 05.07.2023.
  • Fuglie, K., Madhur Gautam, Aparajita Goyal and William F. Maloney (2020). Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  • Kock, M. A. (2022). Intellectual Property Protection for Plant Related Innovation: Fit for Future? Springer Nature.
  • Kümin, M., Bearth, A., Reinhardt, D., Romeis, J., Soyk, S. and B. Studer (2023). New breeding technologies: Application examples from plant research, Swiss Academies Communications 18 (2).
  • Morgan, S., Fuglie K. and J. Jelliffe (2022). World Agricultural Output Growth Continues to Slow, Reaching Lowest Rate in Six Decades, USDA Economic Research Service, Amber Waves.
  • Noleppa, S. and M. Cartsburg (2021). The Socio-economic and Environmental Value of Plant Breeding in the EU and Selected EU Member States. HFFA Research.
  • Riedesel, L., Laidig, F., Hadasch, S., Rentel, D., Hackauf, B., Piepho, H.-P. and T. Reike (2022). Breeding Progress Reduces Carbon Footprints of Wheat and Rye. Journal of Cleaner Production, 377 (2022) 134326.
  • USDA Economic Research Service ERS (2023). TFP Indices and Components for Countries, Regions Grouped by Income Level, and the World, 1961-2021 (last updated: 29/09/2023).

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