When attempts were made to introduce genetically modified crops in the 1990s, they were quickly labelled Frankenstein foods. However, gene-edited produce is very different. The technology has received widespread support, it could solve multiple environmental challenges and it offers clear business opportunities for forward-thinking firms.
in coming decades
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G lobal food producers have faced unprece- dented strains in 2022. The war in Ukraine – engaging two of the world’s top grain producers – has accentuated longer-term pressures on food supplies. Crop failures have been exacerbated by a warming climate, with the frequency of droughts up 29% over the past two decades, according to a recent UN report. At the same time, the number of mouths to feed is increasing by close to 80 million a year, putting the global population on track to rise from nearly 8 billion at present to 8.7 billion a decade from now.
This toxic combination threatens belatedly to vindicate the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, who predicted more than 200 years ago that population growth would eventually outstrip our capacity to grow sufficient food. “The challenges facing food production don’t stop there,” says Dr Alan Bullion, head of agricultural research at S&P Global. “The ever-expanding demand for food is increasing the ecological impact of agriculture, from rising carbon emissions to dead zones in oceans and lakes caused by fertiliser run-off. And in many parts of the world, it can be hard to convince people to eat a healthy diet – adding to strains on healthcare systems.”
A GMO came to mean a plant with genes inserted from another species. Gene editing uses only the existing set of genes within a plant
But there are hopes that – as with prior food crises – technology could be coming to the rescue. One of the most promising innovations is the application of gene editing to agriculture, with the potential to boost yields, improve drought resilience, reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers, and even make crops more wholesome. “While it’s not a silver bullet, gene editing has huge promise,” says Dr Bullion.
The first reason for optimism around gene editing is that it is far more readily accepted by the public than genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – which provoked a huge backlash in many parts of the world when they were first introduced in the 1990s. This partly reflects the scientific distinction between the two approaches, says Dr Tom Adams, chief executive officer of gene editing company Pairwise and a former vice president of biotech- nology at agrochemical giant Monsanto, now part of Bayer.
“A GMO came to mean a plant with genes inserted from another species – resulting in something that would not normally occur in nature,” he explains. “By contrast, gene editing uses only the existing set of genes within a plant.”
While evidence of the perceived risks from transgenic crops was never forthcoming, the absence of outside genes has made the latest advances in gene technology feel more natural to a sceptical public. “Gene editing can be seen more as a way of speeding up the plant breeding process, while also achieving traits that could not be achieved by traditional methods,” says Dr Ferdinand Los, chief science officer of Hudson River Biotech. “Where similar types of crop adjustments would traditionally take between seven and 10 years – if that were possible at all – they can now be done within two to four years.”
Health and safety regulators in much of the world are already giving their blessing to foods produced using a gene editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9. Last year, Japan became the first country to approve the sale of a gene-edited tomato, engineered by Tokyo- based Sanatech Seed to contain higher amounts of the neurotrans- mitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (commonly known as GABA) in order to support lower blood
pressure and promote relaxation. In May, Kenya published guidelines for the development of gene-edited products, and scientists in the country are already working on disease- and drought-resistant strains of sorghum, maize and bananas.
Earlier this year, the European Commission opened a public consultation process around gene editing in agriculture. The tone from top officials has been encouraging
EU resistance fading
“Gene editing is becoming globally acceptable, with the US, most of Latin America, Japan, Israel and parts of Africa embracing the practice,” says Dr Bullion. “Post-Brexit, the UK has also been moving swiftly on this area and has the potential to become a global leader, given the strength of the nation’s research establishment.”
Most encouragingly of all, resistance is fading even within the European Union, which has traditionally been concerned by the notion of tampering with a crop’s genetic structure. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that gene editing should be covered by the same strict rules that apply to moving genes between species. Earlier this year, however, the European Commission opened a public consultation process around gene editing in agriculture. The tone from top officials has been encouraging.
Health and food safety commis- sioner Stella Kyriakides launched the consultation by saying that gene editing “could help build a more resilient and sustainable agri-food system”. And an EC factsheet appears intended to assuage the concerns of ecological activists who opposed GMOs. The document stresses that gene-edited crops can “require fewer natural resources, fertiliser, and pesticides, thus contributing to the conservation of biodiversity”. An impact assessment is due by the middle of 2023, which many observers expect to be followed by more permissive legislation.
Assuming this momentum continues, how great could the gains from gene editing be? Perhaps the best starting point is yield, given the looming Malthusian challenge. BioConsortia, a California-based agricultural research and development company, expects farmers worldwide will need to produce 56 per cent more food in 2050 than in 2010, based on a global population of close to 10 billion. Taking an even longer perspective, they estimate the amount of food that needs to be produced in the coming 40 or 50 years will be equivalent to the volume that was produced in the past 10,000 years.
A team of scientists in China managed to increase the yield of a variety of rice by as much as 40 per cent after giving the crop a second copy of one of its own genes
All other things being equal, such a surge in production will necessitate a huge increase in the use of fertiliser – increasing the accompanying risk to marine ecosystems – and boosting the carbon footprint of agriculture, which already accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
BioConsortia’s chief executive, Marcus Meadows-Smith, argues that gene editing can help to alleviate the painful trade-off between higher production and ecological impact. In recent field trials the company has been able to boost the yield of wheat, corn and other non-legume crops by 10-20 per cent, identifying microbes that naturally partner such plants and re-engineering them to provide more nitrogen to nourish the crop.
“Gene editing unleashes the natural power of our microbes to fix nitrogen in the air, and so not only improves harvests but also reduces the need for fertiliser,” explains Meadows-Smith. “Less fertiliser means lower emissions and less chemical run-off. Meanwhile, only a tiny amount of these microbes applied as a seed treatment is required to colonise the roots of the plant, making it cost-effective for farmers.”
Gains can be even larger in some crops. A team of scientists in China managed to increase the yield of a variety of rice by as much as 40 per cent after giving the crop a second copy of one of its own genes. The tweak enables the plant to absorb more fertiliser, improves photosynthesis and speeds up flowering.
Gene editing can also be used to extend the shelf life of foods. “About a third of food produced globally goes to waste,” says Dr Los. “Gene editing has the potential to imperceptibly thicken the skin of a fruit, for example, to reduce water loss and extend shelf life. Through such techniques it might be possible to reduce wastage on a range of food products by double digits. That would be of huge ecological and financial benefit.”
Such productivity gains also have the potential to help counter the recent bout of food price inflation. Global food prices have been soaring, by as much as 33 per cent earlier this year. Even though increases have fallen back since then, the inflationary pressure does not seem to be going away.
Gene editing unleashes the natural power of our microbes to fix nitrogen in the air, and so not only improves harvests but also reduces the need for fertiliser
Grain prices have been badly affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Surging natural gas prices – another side-effect of the Ukraine conflict – are likely to affect food prices too, since gas accounts for about 80 per cent of the variable cost of essential fertiliser components, such as ammonia. “Higher food prices have become a global political issue, reducing living standards even in rich nations,” says Dr Bullion. “Gene editing can clearly be part of a broader solution.”
Finally, the technology has the potential to make healthy or sustainable foods more appealing to consumers. “These techniques can improve the taste of a crop, for example by reducing bitterness,” says Dr Los. “We could also see efforts to optimise the flavour of crops used in plant-based meat substitutes.”
One company that has taken on the challenge of appealing directly to consumers is Pairwise, which is about to release a nutrient-dense variety of mustard green with enhanced flavour that will be rolled out under the brand Conscious Foods. “It can be pretty ineffective to just tell people to eat more healthy fruit and vegetables,” said Dr Adams. “Our mission is to make healthy foods more convenient or even more nutritious.” In addition to its salad product, the company is working on seedless blackberries and cherries.
Of course, gene editing alone won’t be enough to meet the challenge of producing around 50 per cent more food over the coming decades, while simultaneously lowering carbon emissions and improving human health. But it is likely to play a key role in addressing the many challenges facing the global food system. And with a potential market of around $600 billion a year for major crops alone, according to BioConsortia, there are large rewards for pioneering companies in this field n