Gene editing is a revolutionary technology which has brought us closer to editing targeted areas of DNA. Although there are a number of gene-editing technologies currently available, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) has taken the world by storm, as it is incredibly precise and both cheaper and quicker than traditional gene-editing methods. Patent filings for CRISPR have increased at an unprecedented rate since 2011. CRISPR is mainly being implemented for treating various genetic diseases, as well as the development of many antibiotics and antivirals, but its possibilities are countless.
Agriculture is one of those possibilities
Imagine if we could create crops that were more resistant to abiotic stresses (eg, drought, excessive watering, extreme temperatures, salinity and mineral (metal and metalloid) toxicity) or more nutritious; we could be able to solve the problem of food scarcity and malnutrition around the world. However, the extent to which gene editing could benefit this industry depends on how genetically modified (GM) food is regulated around the world.
US stance on GM food technology
The United States is the key player in the development and adoption of GM food technology. Examples of gene-edited crops already on the US market include:
- a browning-resistant button mushroom;
- an improved storage potato; and
- a waxy variety of maize that produces a higher starch content for processors.
China and EU stance on GM food technology
On the other hand, China – a country with nearly 19% of the world’s population and only 7% of the world’s arable land – does not allow for the cultivation of GM foods, except papaya and cotton. According to data published by the Ministry of Agriculture on 27 April 2013, as of 2010, China had grown 3.3 million hectares of the approved GM cotton and a few hectares of the GM papaya, while no other GM crops had been cultivated, according to the ministry.
The European Union also imposes strict requirements on approving and labelling GM foods, demanding a risk assessment for all new products before marketing and compulsory labelling.
However, in recent years China has begun to take an opposite approach, as patent filings in the sector have increased substantially since 2015. With ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta in February 2016, China is now moving forward with GM food technology. Syngenta is a producer of agrochemicals and hybrid seeds, and conducts genomic research to develop GM crop seeds.
Other key players in this field are:
- Dow AgroSciences;
- Monsanto Technology;
- DuPont Pioneer; and
- BASF Plant Science.
Threats and hindrances
One hindrance to the adoption of this technology is the opposition from consumers. Even though the World Health Organisation, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and every other respected organisation to have examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion – that consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant-improvement techniques – the worldwide adoption of GM foods is far from a reality. Based on the various studies conducted across many countries, misinformation among consumers is the main reason behind this opposition.
Gene editing (mainly CRISPR) is an innovative technology and many countries are beginning to realise the benefits. Early adoption will be a key factor in profiting from the technology at a later stage. It will be interesting to see how the stance of various countries will change with the further development of this technology.