It is hard to believe, but the genetic engineering technology that gave us herbicide resistant canola, corn and soybeans is yesterday’s science. The recombinant DNA techniques that gave us these new farming options have benefited agriculture – through increased yield, reduced input costs and reduction of tillage and summer fallow. The technology has also helped improve Canadian agriculture’s sustainability picture, by reducing fuel use, improving soil organic matter and decreasing erosion. But not everyone in society sees these benefits and the resistance to “GMO” by some consumers in the market place continues.
So what about the next step in technology? I am a complete science nerd, so I get excited when I read about new gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9. But not everyone shares this excitement. Should we embrace the advances in genetic science or stick to the older traditional methods of plant breeding?
For me, the answer is an enthusiastic “yes, but”. First to the “yes” part of the answer. Unlike rDNA methods, the new gene editing techniques do not introduce DNA from outside of the plant. A new wheat variety derived using the emerging technology will still be 100% wheat DNA. Gene editing will rapidly speed the plant breeding process. It can take ten to fifteen years (or more) to breed a new variety using traditional plant breeding methods. With the new processes, this will be cut back to five to seven years or even less.
Gene editing technology will allow scientists to deliver drought tolerant crops, salt tolerant crops, fusarium resistant crops, resistance to rust, specific nutritional profiles and a likely few beneficial traits that we have not even contemplated. The technology is precise, only changing what needs to be adjusted leaving the beneficial characteristics in place. And the new breeding programs will deliver these traits in ½ the time, or less, of regular plant breeding. Being on the cutting edge of technology is a competitive advantage for Canadian farmers. We can’t afford to turn our back on advancements in science.
The new technology will help agriculture adapt to a changing climate. This is how we will deliver new productive seeds to small landholders around the world who are looking for a path out of poverty. This is how we will feed a growing population. The world really is on the edge of another green revolution. How could one be anything but excited?
Now we get to the “but” part of the answer. Many consumers are wary of new science and technology, especially when that science is applied to food. We can’t blaze the new technology trail and ignore the consuming public. We need to acknowledge the concerns and bring consumers on the path with us. Accomplishing this goal is just as important as delivering new traits and varieties.
There are two tracks we as an industry need to take simultaneously. First, we need scientists and farmers to come out of the fields and labs to explain why the new technology is good for consumers and our planet. We know how the science will benefit agriculture, but how will the new techniques benefit someone in downtown Toronto with no connection to the farm? We need to deliver real answers to this question before the activists convince the public that we are putting Frankenstein’s monster onto grocery shelves.
But our actions should not be confined to trying to convince the consumers. There is a regulatory element as well. And here the Government of Canada must be an active partner. Canada must lead the development of clear, science-based regulations that include the new gene editing techniques. Regulations based on fact and research, not fear, will facilitate the adoption of the new technology.
Second, we need the Government of Canada to actively engage regulatory agencies in key markets to follow the Canadian example and implement a regulatory regime that allows rather than prevents the use of the new plant breeding techniques. This is work that needs to be accomplished before new varieties are planted. Working towards enabling regulations around the world should have a priority that is on par with negotiating the elimination of tariffs and restrictive quotas.
The new technology is a potential boon, not just for farmers but for consumers and a hungry world. But agriculture has work to do with consumers and governments around the globe if the possibilities of the science are to be realized.