Decades of fretting over the safety and virtue of genetically modified organisms have
led to a perverse outcome. Plant scientists in academia and startup companies have
largely shied away from creating new GM crop varieties because it takes, on average,
more than a hundred million dollars and over a decade to get such a plant approved
by regulators in the United States, and also because the idea of GMO food has elicited public outrage. As a result, a few large agricultural and chemical producers like
Monsanto—or MonSatan, if you prefer—dominate the GM industry, making a killing
o; herbicide- and insect-resistant corn and soybeans.
The outcome has been just what GMO critics most dreaded: many farmers
depend on a few large companies, whose researchers focus on traits designed to
improve profits rather than produce healthier foods for consumers. For noncorporate
researchers, meanwhile, genetic engineering of plants has been expensive and risky.
That stunts progress in plant breeding just as climate change and population growth
are putting growing pressure on agriculture (see “Why We Will Need Genetically
Modified Foods,” January/February 2014).
That’s why the work described in “These Are Not Your Father’s GMOs” (page
30), by our senior biomedicine editor, Antonio Regalado, is so important. Regalado
explains how a leading plant geneticist is using gene editing to create a healthier
soybean that farmers in South Dakota and elsewhere are beginning to plant and
harvest. New gene-editing tools, either CRISPR or the slightly older TALEN, don’t
insert a foreign gene into the plant to create a new trait (as typically happens with
conventional GMOs) but, rather, tweak the plant’s existing DNA. The engineered
crops thus sidestep the lengthy regulatory process and could avoid the stigmas surrounding GMOs entirely.
Gene editing is cheap, powerful, and precise. Most important, it puts many more
plant scientists back in the game of creating new varieties of crops, dreaming up
blight-resistant potatoes, tastier tomatoes, drought-tolerant rice, and higher-fiber
wheat. Until now, there has been little progress in commercializing such agricultural
innovations, which are likely to represent far smaller and less lucrative markets than
herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans. Getting gene editing into the hands of a far
larger group of scientists could return us to the original vision for genetic engineering as an invaluable tool for growing healthier and cheaper foods, helping to feed the
world’s growing population.
Or will it? That depends on public perception. Will gene editing be viewed as
a state-of-the-art tool for improving crops, or an easier and faster way to create
frankenfoods? One can only hope it’s the former, and that plant science can fully enter
the modern age of genomics, leaving fears of GMOs and MonSatan in the shadows.
Gene Editing Could Rewrite
the GMO Debate
David Rotman is editor of
MIT Technology Review.
From the Editor