Transformational times call for transformational innovations.
That’s certainly the case today as the world wrestles with a multitude of challenges associated with global food security, climate change, energy transition and a population that’s expected to grow by another half a billion people by 2030.
Amid this backdrop, we need to be focusing more of our attention on one such transformational technology — new genomic techniques (NGTs), commonly known as genome editing. This exciting new breeding technique is a breakthrough in biology with the potential for a wide range of applications.
In pharmaceutical health care, NGTs are already being used in clinical trials to solve previously incurable diseases. For human medicine, genome editing is applied to discover treatments or cures for serious genetic diseases and conditions, such as certain types of cancer, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and early-onset Alzheimer’s. All of which has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people.
For agriculture, its promise is equally transformational, unlocking the potential to solve fundamental challenges associated with plant disease, pest encroachment and weakened crop resilience due to the impacts of climate change, while simultaneously increasing yield and productivity to keep up with global demand.
Genome editing offers a more efficient and targeted way to improve plants than selection-based conventional breeding. It produces an improved plant that does not include DNA from a different species, thus making it fundamentally different than GMO crops. Through genome editing, we now have the power to deliver improved plants that could (and do) occur in nature or be developed through conventional breeding, but faster and more efficiently. Genome editing in no way replaces conventional breeding, just improves its precision and efficiency.
The combination of new plant breeding techniques, conventional breeding and transgenics, along with other emerging technologies such as genomics, data science, and precision farming provide a powerful toolkit for the continued production of healthy food for a growing and changing planet.
Not only can new breeding techniques like genome editing address hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity, they can do so while producing more resilient crops that use less water, nutrients, and land.
Crops with increased yield and resilience prevent additional land currently serving as wildlife and forests from coming into agricultural production. Feeding a growing population through increased productivity on existing agricultural land also improves global sustainability.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit’s Scientific Group, among many other influential organizations, cites genome editing as a critical tool that can help transform global food systems and end hunger by 2030.
Our mission is to enrich the lives of those who produce and those who consume, ensuring progress for generations to come. And we are committed to encouraging wide adoption of this technology in agriculture by enabling access via licensing to our foundational CRISPR genome-editing intellectual property rights. We collaborate with nonprofit organizations, academics, and commercial enterprises to help solve some of the world’s biggest food challenges.
We’re encouraged that the U.N., among others, is calling for more investment in nature-based solutions like bioscience and genetics to advance food production yields and reduce waste. Its studies show that eradicating worldwide hunger can largely be achieved by 2030 with $40-50 billion in new investments in food systems every year.
One powerful example of how investments in genome editing can have a material impact on food production in the developing world comes from West Africa. Here the parasitic Striga weed has had a devastating effect on sorghum yield — a major food staple to an already food-challenged part of the world. Through our collaborations — and the application of genome editing — we have developed a ‘smart’ sorghum that prevents Striga germination, parasitism and crop loss.
In Europe, we’re involved in public-private partnerships to develop earlier maturity varieties of crops using genome editing, that would allow high protein plants, like soybeans, to grow in European climatic conditions helping meet the European Union’s protein plan ambition. These same kinds of advances could help European farmers grow three crops in two years, including adding a biofuel crop in their rotation.
Meanwhile in the U.S., production loss in corn and soybeans due to disease costs farmers nearly $8 billion every year. Globally, the figure is significantly higher.
We believe genome-edited crops can dramatically reduce that crop loss and food waste. In fact, over the past several years we have identified a pipeline of native genes to target major disease problems and have enhanced these genes to improve the level of disease resistance.
In March we announced a game-changing genome-editing technology that will bring added protection to elite corn hybrids that are advancing through our R&D pipeline. In 2021, Northern leaf blight, Southern rust, gray leaf spot and anthracnose stalk rot combined to cost North American corn growers more than 318 million bushels in production.
The early-stage concept uses technology based on new breeding techniques to package multiple disease-resistant native traits, which already exist in corn, into a single location in the genome, to better address the most devastating corn diseases facing farmers today, while freeing breeders to focus their efforts on other challenges. By using NGTs this way, we are able to more precisely replicate a process that is often used randomly in nature to bolster disease tolerance.
In 2021, Northern leaf blight, Southern rust, gray leaf spot and anthracnose stalk rot combined to cost North American corn growers more than 318 million bushels in production. By using genome editing to combine and reposition disease resistant traits that already exist within the corn genome, we are able to much more precisely replicate a process that is often used in nature to bolster disease tolerance and minimize production stress.
Of course, investing in such technologies and tapping into their benefits is just the beginning of the journey to widespread adoption and acceptance. The technical advancements with these tools, the creative products which can be developed, and the potential to fundamentally enhance breeding all create great excitement. However, delivering innovation requires not only technical success, but also the support of regulators and consumers to reach its full potential. Full transparency is so important in communicating why and how genome editing technologies are used and the benefits they provide for each plant variety developed.
This is why Corteva embraces a full-disclosure policy on breeding methods used to develop our commercial varieties. We encourage all stakeholders to visit our website to learn more about this important work. Additionally, in the U.S. we adhere to the Responsible Use Guidelines for Gene Editing in Agriculture (Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture – The Center for Food Integrity) to provide additional transparency across our value chain. These guidelines were developed in collaboration with food companies, retailers and agricultural companies to provide a transparency framework across the food value chain.
While regulatory policies for genome edited crops are under development in many countries around the globe, these policies vary greatly from country to country. Maximizing innovation requires science-based regulatory frameworks that are product focused, risk-proportionate and consistent with plants developed through traditional breeding.
As an industry, we need to continue to work with regulators, farmers and consumers around the world to clearly articulate and demonstrate these benefits while alleviating fears and misconceptions.
That journey has begun and with a steady drumbeat of new innovations and widespread knowledge-sharing, we’re confident genome editing will not only revolutionize agriculture but secure healthy, plentiful, and delicious food for generations to come.
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