You’ve no doubt heard about some of the incredible breakthroughs coming down the pipeline in CRISPR gene editing, and methods like CRISPR-Cas9. Whether it’s a cure to debilitating diseases in humans or animals, or the key to producing more sustainable and resilient crops that can grow using fewer resources – the possibilities are exciting, and we’re just tapping the surface.
According to Bill Gates, gene editing “could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development,” and could be “a lifesaver on a massive scale.”
But what about unintended consequences? What’s the real story? How do we separate fact from fear?
To get a true perspective, we need to go back – thousands of years to be more precise – to when mankind first began domesticating modern crops. As the years have gone by, scientists’ understanding of agriculture has continued to progress. Adapting the basic principles that have been used for generations, plant breeding innovations like gene editing are preparing us to face 21st-century challenges.
The possibility of unintended characteristics due to genetic changes is nothing new to plant scientists. Plant genomes are not static; each individual – whether plant, animal or human – has a unique genetic makeup. Spontaneous genetic variation occurs continuously at specific rates – something plant breeders have historically used to identify new, desirable characteristics as a result of this spontaneously occurring variation. Indeed, the genetic diversity that allowed domestication of crop plants and further varietal improvement ultimately depends upon an available range of diversity from past, present and future mutations.
In fact, plant scientists have historically induced genetic variation using various methods such as mutagenesis and tissue culture, afterward screening for the desired characteristic and eliminating those lines with undesirable characteristics.
“More than 3,000 crop varieties have been developed using this non-specific process to induce genetic variation, none of which have ever been associated with negative health or environmental impacts,” says Kent J. Bradford, UC Davis distinguished professor of plant sciences and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center. “Newer, more precise methods of inducing or introducing genetic variation even further reduce the possibility of unintended characteristics. Where such characteristics do occur, they will be identified through further routine screening, and plants that exhibit undesirable traits are eliminated. Modern gene-editing techniques simplify the breeders’ job by creating variation only in the desired genetic locations.”
You may not realize it, but many of the foods we know and love today were made possible thanks to modern plant breeding. For example: carrots with increased beta-carotene, which improves both the appearance and nutrition profile; fruits and vegetables that are more convenient and appealing for consumers, like personal-sized seedless watermelons, peppers and grape tomatoes; better tasting produce that is more likely to become part of a healthy diet, like new butternut squash with an unusually rich, sweet, starchy flavor; and new varieties of fruits and vegetables, such as broccolini, kale and improved varieties of cauliflower. None of these would exist without plant breeding! And, in addition to consumer benefits like these, plant breeding plays a critical role in addressing new and emerging environmental challenges by allowing us to produce crops in a more sufficient and sustainable way.
You can be assured that the testing process for new crops is extensive and precise, starting early in the breeding process and continuing until the final product is commercially available. The development of a new plant variety generally requires the evaluation of thousands of plants, ultimately resulting in the selection of a few new varieties that show the desired characteristics. All plant varieties go through this process regardless of the breeding method used.
Plant scientists have an established track record of safety, driven by the need to ensure the availability of a safe, nutritious and economical food supply, while meeting the needs of farmers and addressing emerging environmental challenges.