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IDTechEx considers how gene-edited crops can avoid making same mistakes as GMOs

IDTechEx considers how gene-edited crops can avoid making same mistakes as GMOs © IDTechEx

Genetically modified (GM) crops are unpopular. Despite their vast potential to help improve global food security while reducing pesticide use, many countries are extremely resistant to planting GM crops, with 85% of global GM agricultural land coming from just four countries: the US, Brazil, Argentina and Canada. Where they have been grown, GM crops have been very successful, to the point where more than 90% of the soybean, corn and cotton crops grown in the US are GM. A 2014 meta-analysis found that an average farm can increase yields by 22%, reduce chemical pesticide use by 37% and increase farmer profits by 68%. Despite this, difficult regulations and consumer hostility have meant that growth in GM crops has been stagnant for much of the last decade, with companies instead turning their attention to gene editing in crops.

GM crops remain hugely controversial, to the point where (former) GM giant Monsanto is a synonym for corporate evil to many consumers. Gene editing could be set to become the next revolution in agriculture, allowing the precise editing of specific genes without introducing foreign DNA into the final crop. However, for it to truly become a game-changing technology, developers will need to avoid making the same mistakes that were made with GM crops in the 1990s.

A consistent mistake that the industry made was relying on the science to try and persuade the public while neglecting the emotional aspects of the debate. When Monsanto attempted to introduce its glyphosate-resistant soybeans in Europe in the 1990s, it attempted to brush off criticism, leading to a war of words with environmental groups. Here, the environmental groups had the upper hand, capitalising on the public’s fear of the unknown, especially in relation to emotional triggers of personal health and safety, something that continues today. Additionally, its approach to protecting its IP – suing farmers for violating terms of service – drew intense criticism from consumers who viewed seeds as being part of the natural world that belongs to everybody.

Successfully commercialising gene-edited seeds will require a careful approach. This will require a meaningful dialogue with consumers, addressing the wider emotional concerns around GMOs whilst also engaging in efforts to educate the public around the technology and improve wider scientific literacy. However, navigating this space in an open and inclusive manner while also protecting IP and investments could be a serious challenge.

“Crop Biotechnology 2020-2030”, the new report by IDTechEx, explores and contrasts gene editing and GM technologies, analysing the scientific, market and consumer factors needed to make gene editing a success.

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Green light for brown-resistant GMO mushroom

Researcher Yinong Yang used the gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9 to give white button mushrooms an anti-browning trait that improves appearance and shelf life, as well as facilitating automated mechanical harvesting.

A white button mushroom genetically modified so it turns brown more slowly – thus having a longer shelf life – is on track to being sold in the United States.

And the fact that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has said it won’t regulate the mushroom as it does other genetically engineered (GE) modified organisms is seen as paving the way to the market for many more such products.

The anti-browning trait in this particular mushroom was introduced via science’s hot new tool CRISPR–Cas9, a promising but controversial gene-editing technique. Unlike some other forms of genetic modification, CRISPR does not introduce any foreign genetic material, it modifies pre-existing genes. In this case, Penn State University researcher Yinong Yang used it to provide an anti-browning trait that improves appearance and shelf life, as well as facilitating automated mechanical harvesting, in the common white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus).

In a letter to Dr Yang, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is responsible for regulating certain GE organisms that are or could be plant pests, noted the mushrooms don’t contain introduced genetic material and are unlikely to be plant pests and thus won’t be subject to this regulation. They may, however, be subject to control by other regulatory authorities such as the FDA or EPA, it said.

According to Billy Roberts from market intelligence agency Mintel, the mushrooms demonstrate the speed of advancements in the genetic modification arena, while also providing a serious challenge to regulatory agencies, and could change the GMO debate in the US. Roberts said research shows consumers want to know if foods have GM ingredients and significant numbers indicate that they seek GMO-free claims on foods they buy.

Read more about this issue:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/04/18/why-this-genetically-modified-mushroom-is-bypassing-usda-regulation/
http://www.nature.com/news/gene-edited-crispr-mushroom-escapes-us-regulation-1.19754

Also see: Cucumbers that stay green longer

Image of Agaricus bisporus Zuchtchampignon by Böhringer Friedrich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons