Gene-editing technologies are a chance to change perceptions

By using gene editing to minimise inputs, rather than maximise pest resistance, the agri industry can re-shape public perception of GE crops.

The emergence of new gene editing technologies is an opportunity to re-shape public perception of what gene-edited and genetically-modified crops represent, a panel on biotech at the World Agri Tech Forum in San Francisco said last week.

Efficient gene-editing technologies like CRISPR (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeat) which can make faster, more precise genetic edits, can expand gene editing’s use beyond herbicide resistance. They could reduce the need for chemical inputs and improve flavour. That in turn could improve the perception of gene editing and genetically-modified crops.

Companies interested in using gene-editing technologies to enhance yields or improve resistance to heavy chemical inputs risk alienating customers growing increasingly suspicious of GMO crops.

Consumer reaction will be a major driver in any decision on the use of gene editing technologies at family owned US berry company Driscoll’s, its principal molecular biologist, Judson Ward said.

“All the sequencing technologies have moved tremendously fast in the last three years. Now we can start to figure out how you might be able to use them,” said Ward. “We at Driscoll’s are struggling with the idea of whether or not we can actually use these technologies; whether the consumer will find it to be acceptable. If the consumer doesn’t find it acceptable, we’re not going to use the technology.”

But John Brubaker, chief executive at British biologicals and chemical inputs company Plant Impact, said the emergence of new technologies is an opportunity to improve public perception of GE and GMO crops. “This breakthrough around CRISPR is a key moment in time,” he said.

“I wonder about those early decisions made with herbicide resistance and if ultimately those decisions had been directed toward output traits [for example improved taste or longer shelf-life as opposed to herbicide resistance] that would benefit consumers, we as an industry might not be where we are [on] consumer views of genetically modified crops,” he said.

“CRISPR […] is a chance to get that right in the sense that the products that come to market first are not about stealing the chemical companies’ lunch, they are about delivering benefits to ultimate food consumers.”

Focusing on advances that allow growers to minimise inputs rather than maximise their ability to use pesticides will be key, said Mostafa Ronaghi, chief technology officer at Illumina, the genetics and biotech company.