Gene Editing to Revolutionize Agriculture
By 2050, farmers must produce 70 percent more food than today to sustain the world’s population. Continued innovations in plant breeding are necessary to provide them with the improved plant varieties they need to meet this demand. Dr. Kevin Folta, plant science professor and chair of the University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department, explains how he believes advanced breeding methods could lead to another revolution in agriculture.
What is one of the latest plant breeding tools in use today that could make a difference?
Without question, gene editing. This allows us to inactivate genes from plants to produce desirable traits. It’s the same process as traditional plant breeding, but more efficient. Every company and university lab is doing gene editing. Improving plant disease resistance is the biggest focus, but other applications, such as the removal of negative flavors and controlling flowering (more or never), are also being pursued. Gene editing is the biggest leap forward in plant biotechnology, where we’ve been taking baby steps for decades.
How does gene editing compare to other plant breeding methods?
With gene editing, we can create changes we need without introducing foreign DNA in the final product. Although there’s nothing wrong with adding DNA, gene editing does not do so. That contrasts with transgenic modification, where new genes are introduced (sometimes from other species), and RNA interference (RNAi), where something is added to turn off or dial down gene expression. Also, it only takes a few months to a few years to create a new plant with gene editing, as opposed to the incremental changes over time with traditional plant breeding, or the 5-15 years it takes to cut through regulatory barriers with transgenics. Since gene editing is on par with traditional breeding, there is no need to analyze products created by it under the old regulatory framework. It’s simply a different path to the same end, like driving versus taking a train to the same destination; we eliminate certain traits in both cases. For transgenic crops, this process can take 10-15 years, which is why developers are moving more toward gene editing and RNAi.
How will the latest plant breeding methods, like gene editing, impact consumers?
Consumers want cheap, fast and good food. Biotechnology will help supply that. It will be a game changer in the developing world. The industrialized world will benefit from solving major problems like citrus greening disease in citrus fruits and diseases in avocado and American chestnut trees that threaten the supply of these foods. Plus, there are positive things biotechnology can do that appeals to the values of all: increase the safety and accessibility of food, reduce poverty and enhance environmental sustainability. Once those boxes are checked, it will be hard for consumers to deny the efficacy of biotechnology. But we must go beyond major crops.
Do you believe the public sector is investing enough in R&D around gene editing?
We all want to succeed with gene editing, but the private sector grabbed it and ran with it, whereas public resources are thin. There is a competitive edge in the private sector, which spurs innovation. American companies and foreign governments, for instance, have invested heavily in gene editing technologies. This is the next moon race and public sector science is slower getting out of the gate.
How important is R&D in plant breeding?
It’s critical. Countries like China have invested billions of dollars in this sector. On the other hand, places like the European Union are way behind because of policies that have restricted approvals and research on biotech crops. Agricultural leaders of the next decade will be those who adhere strictly to science, not public opinion. We want to help people and solve problems. That takes technology, not non-science-based policy.
How much more will innovation be utilized in agriculture?
Between plant breeding methods like gene editing and precision farming, we’ll see another revolution in agriculture in the next 10 years. It will be a very different ball game … unless we regulate things to death and stop it. If not, we’ll add tremendous amounts of technology and precision to farming.