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How Is Genome Editing Revolutionizing Agriculture?

June 7, 2018
“There is a positive story to be shared on both the need for and the benefits of genome editing.”

Just as genome editing is a groundbreaking technology with the potential to treat and cure human disease, the applications of genome editing for food, agriculture and animal welfare are at the forefront of tomorrow’s modern agricultural system.

The BIO 2018 Convention session, “Advances in Genome Editing: The Next Frontier in Agriculture” looked at the many ways this technology promises to nourish a growing population while taking even better care of our health and environment.

To meet the continuing challenge of feeding 8 billion people, farmers and growers need ways to produce food crops that are resistant to diseases and pests. Ranchers want to raise livestock in a healthier and more sustainable manner. And farmers and food companies are looking to meet consumers’ desires for healthier foods – perhaps foods with reduced allergenic potential or maybe oils with healthier fat profiles. Advances in genome editing can address all of these.

Improving Crop Sustainability and Nutritional Profile

Throughout history, growers have selected desired traits in plants to improve farming crops through traditional breeding, explained panel moderator Bethany Shively of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). Creating the desired plant could take years and several generations. “Today, genome editing can allow us to reach the same end-point as through traditional plant breeding methods, but with greater precision and efficiency.”

As one example, Corteva’s Maria Fedorova described the company’s Next Generation Waxy Corn created using Crispr-Cas9. Waxy corn kernels contain an enhanced starch profile. It is milled for a number of everyday consumer food and non-food uses.

Dan Voytas of Calyxt explained the importance of developing agriculturally advantageous traits, such as herbicide tolerance, for farmers. But Calyxt is also focused on developing healthier specialty food ingredients, such as healthier oils and high fiber wheat, aimed at addressing consumer trends.

Voytas described the company’s high-oleic/low-saturated fat soybean oil. Calyxt is also working to remove the components of gluten responsible for the harmful immune reaction. The development of this wheat variety is still at an early stage but already carries immense hope for consumers who are gluten intolerant.

Genome editing could also be the answer to malnutrition experienced across the globe. Through gene editing, researchers believe they can increase the content of essential nutrients in crops – such as Vitamin A – to better address food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies in food impoverished regions of the world. Looking to the future, researchers believe we can lessen or even eliminate many of the common allergens found in plants – such as peanuts – through gene editing.

Healthier and More Productive Livestock

Genome editing also holds immense promise for animal agriculture – especially in preventing viral disease explained Daniel Kovich, DVM, of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Foot and Mouth disease, for example, has negatively impacted the beef, pork, corn and soybean industries by $200 billion. African Swine Fever (ASFV) and Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) can also be detrimental to animal livestock operations, often requiring euthanizing the entire herd.

Using genome editing, animal genetics company Genus developed the first pigs in the world resistant to PRRS. “Each year in the U.S. alone, pork producers spend $600 million on preventing and addressing this devastating virus,” explained Genus’s Steve Brody.

Aside from disease prevention, genome editing can also be deployed to help farmers breed more productive chickens and cows. For example, breeds of dairy cows that can survive in hot, tropical environments tend to produce far less milk than do Holsteins – which fare poorly in hot places but are extremely productive in more moderate climates. Scientists are studying ways to edit the genes of tropical breeds of cattle to give them the same favorable genetic traits that make Holsteins so productive, potentially boosting milk and protein production by as much as 50 percent. Conversely, scientists are also looking at editing the genes of Holsteins to produce a sub-breed with a short, sleek coat of hair, which would allow the cattle to tolerate heat.

Gene editing is able to produce “hornless” Holsteins. Most dairy cows have horns, creating a potential risk for farmers who must work closely with the animal to extract milk. Removing horns or "disbudding" dairy calves is a common farm safety practice because it prevents injuries to people and cattle. Unfortunately, the process can cause pain and distress to both the animal and its handlers.

“I think there are very sound reasons why the marketplace would be accepting of this technology,” said Kovich. But he also pointed to obstacles within the FDA’s current regulatory framework that treats gene edited food animals as new animal drugs, meaning they face a long, financially burdensome pathway to approval. “We have serious reservations about the U.S. approach and believe it will kill this technology in its tracks,” said Kovich. “We need a better risk-based framework for these promises to be realized.”

The FDA may be looking more carefully at these issues.  Just yesterday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb published a blogpost, “FDA’s New Efforts to Advance Biotechnology Innovation”:
“FDA is committed to helping ensure the safety of biotechnology products, while also facilitating innovation by applying a risk-based regulatory approach that provides developers with regulatory clarity and predictability and maintains public confidence in our regulatory system…And we’re taking some new steps to advance these goals.”

Time will tell if these improvements will be enough to foster increased adoption of genome editing technology in the United States, but the industry is hopeful.

“There is a positive story to be shared on both the need for and the benefits of genome editing,” said Shively.

More information on the BIO 2018 Convention session, “Advances in Genome Editing: The Next Frontier in Agriculture” is posted here.  Speakers included:

  • Bethany Shively, Communications Director, American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), Moderator

  • Daniel Kovich, Director of Science & Technology, National Pork Producers Council

  • Maria Fedorova, Global Regulatory Portfolio Leader - Enabling Technologies, Corteva Agriscience™, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont™

  • Dan Voytas, Chief Science Officer, Calyxt

  • Steve Brody, Global Director Regulatory Government Affairs, Genus plc


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