In one version of the future, beef and dairy animals are disease-free, fruits and vegetables are resistant to viruses, potatoes taste better and last longer, and wheat has no gluten or allergenic properties.
That future is possible, scientists say. Researchers already have the ability to remove, replace and change genes that could immediately increase productivity and improve the health of plants and animals, according to Steve Strauss, a professor and researcher at Oregon State University. Strauss and a task force of six other scientists have written a scientific paper that suggests gene editing, together with other genetic technologies, can help to feed the world sustainably.
But in most other versions of the future, gene editing in agricultural plants and animals may not reach its potential.
“Gene-edited animals are unlikely to be on the market soon,” Strauss said. “Most people have concerns about these and most other modern genetic technologies. Regulatory and market obstacles to their adoption are great.”
Strauss, who has worked with gene editing in his tree biotechnology laboratory in recent years, hopes public perception will change.
“There are compelling values that can be provided by this technology for the poor in the developing world, and it can clearly improve food quality and value for all consumers. Social obstacles are taking away critical tools,” he said. “People should be open to this but the campaigns surrounding GMOs and related technologies have created a hostile environment for adoption. It’s tragic, in my opinion.”
Modern gene editing is more precise than the decades old GMOs — genetically modified organisms. Today researchers can create gene-edited plants and animals that are specific modifications of the original — most have portions of DNA removed or altered for a variety of assumed benefits, such as resistance to disease, reduced food waste, and higher nutritional quality. Gene-edited organisms can also pass on traits to non-edited relatives, the same as agricultural varieties traditionally bred.
Therein is one public relations problem: There is a fear that controlling gene-edited plants or animals may be difficult.
As a result of public perception, agricultural research into genetic engineering and gene editing at Oregon State University has been curtailed.
“It’s contentious and expensive to study and develop crops modified in this way,” Strauss said. “Market systems in the U.S. now limit gene editing and other types of genetic engineering.”
Most international partners who trade food with the U.S. are not anxious to embrace our gene-edited or GMO products important to Oregon, decreasing the motivation to invest in and expand gene-editing research, he said.
Despite public qualms, some gene-edited products are already coming to the market, especially those not traded to regions that forbid some GMOs such as Europe or Asia. There are also products that are unregulated by the USDA. These include corn used for starch or industrial products, and oil-producing plants such as soy and canola that can be used as foods and fuel, Strauss said.
Michael Paul Nelson, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy in the OSU College of Forestry, has joined other scientists in proposing to form a panel to oversee gene drive, one form of gene editing used to control mosquitoes that spread malaria and other diseases, for example. How this gene-editing project moves forward has implications for agricultural projects.
“We’re able to do it, and we can afford to do it, and it’s incredibly powerful — a perfect storm,” said Nelson of gene editing. “And yet there are no adequate processes in place to make decisions. We need to get ahead of this and make sure local benefits and risks are taken into account up front.”
Nelson was among scientists from nine other universities who wrote the essay proposing an international ethics panel. Their proposal appeared in the November 2018 issue of Science magazine.
“There is a sense of urgency, and a lack of oversight,” Nelson said. “There’s a real possibility that companies or even individuals could act independently.”
Crop modification and pest control has continued for thousands of years, Nelson said. With gene-editing in hand, what once took years of breeding can theoretically be accomplished much more rapidly and specifically with gene editing methods. Nelson said that deliberate thought is needed to guide a process that appears inevitable, especially for the intended release and self-propagation of pest populations.
Nelson’s group has not proposed a timeline or a panel membership, except to suggest that its members should have no conflicts of interest. As proposed, the panel could consider gene-drive guidelines based on the scope and intent of the alteration, the ecosystems that might be affected, the consequences for human health, and the values of the communities impacted.
“It’s difficult, but we’re in a circumstance that requires speed — but before we march ahead, we need to have important conversations,” Nelson said.