NEW CULTIVATION SYSTEMS
‘We are missing opportunities to make agriculture greener’
While in the past genetically modified crops were guaranteed to polarize opinion, they are now the subject of increasing interest. That is partly because of CRISPR-Cas, the latest technique to be used in plant breeding. Bert Lotz of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) now hopes to see a change in the rules that will speed up the process of making agriculture more sustainable.
In the 1990s and 2000s, WUR plant scientist Bert Lotz would find himself talking to organizations such as Greenpeace frequently, sometimes even monthly, about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It was a period in which fierce debates raged about the alleged consequences of interfering in a crop’s genetic makeup. “On the one hand, some groups in society saw benefits as these techniques would allow us to grow more profitable crops using more sustainable methods. On the other hand, many people were afraid of the unknown effects and possible dangers of GMOs. It did not help either that some multinationals were very protective of their intellectual property in patenting genetic modifications in plants.”
The discussions about GMOs are much less heated now, notes the head of the 18-member Applied Ecology team at Wageningen Plant Research. Lotz says the parties now listen better to one another, which is why he prefers to speak of a dialogue. “The turning point was about six years ago, when new genetic techniques emerged for plant breeding.”
Switching genes on and off
He is referring to CRISPR-Cas, a method that lets you snip the DNA in precisely the right place. When repairing the cut, the plant can make a mistake, resulting in a mutation at that point. Plant breeders can use this method to rapidly adapt plants to changing environmental conditions in a targeted way or make them more resistant to diseases and pests (see inset). Lotz: “For example, you can switch specific genes on and off that the plant already has. That is comparable to classic plant breeding, which makes use of the variation that occurs in nature, or changes caused by radiation. But CRISPR-Cas is much more specific.”
The gold-of-pleasure, or Camelina sativa, is a crop rich in oil that has been edited using CRISPR-Cas. That means we can use this plant oil to get the same resources we’re currently taking from palm or coconut oil. WUR researcher Robert van Loo talks about how Europe is no longer dependent on imported resources thanks to the edited Camelina.
What is more, the method raises fewer ethical issues than the genetic modification techniques used in the past, which involved inserting genes not found naturally in the species. “Some Christian communities see GMOs as an affront to God’s creation. This new genetic technique lets us use genes that are already present in the species. That appears to be more acceptable.”
The researcher hastens to add that modern genetically engineered crops are not the only route to more sustainable agriculture that is also better able to feed the world. But they can be part of a successful combination of genetic technology and agroecology, where agriculture makes optimum use of natural resources and services. Last spring, Lotz published a research article on this development. “It is precisely such insights that can help increase acceptance of these crops.”
The pathogen will not be able to switch the gene on but the plant will
However, Lotz does see a danger in excessive patenting. “If large companies use patents to protect their genetically engineered crops, it may reduce the number of varieties that are available. Farmers may then be forced to select a variety that does not score particularly well in terms of sustainability or for which there is not much demand in the market.” That is why Lotz prefers the classic plant breeder’s rights where the plant breeding company receives a fee for the product that it developed but others are then allowed to cross-breed that variety further. “That leaves room for innovation and gives farmers more varieties to choose from, avoiding the risk of a monopoly on the available varieties.”
Various gene-edited wheat plants. Photo: Wageningen Plant Research
CRISPR-Cas lets scientists cut DNA at precise points and thereby adapt plants, for instance to changing living conditions. Image: Jan Schaart
Another significant obstacle is the current set of rules within the European Union. The rules applicable at the moment date from 2001 (long before the introduction of CRISPR-Cas and consequently based on the situation with the old GMOs) and they no longer fit the current situation. That makes the approval of modern genetically engineered crops very unpredictable for plant breeding companies. “The procedure can take five years and cost five million euros, but it can also take 20 years and cost 50 million euros. Companies aren’t prepared to take that risk in Europe.”
Fortunately, some progress is being made in updating the rules. “The Dutch minister of Agriculture, Carola Schouten, wants more research on the options for modern genetically engineered crops, as that fits in with her efforts to introduce circular agriculture.” Lotz sees that attitude in other countries too. The EU has also started a study in all the member states to determine the extent to which the GMO rules are still appropriate today, given the latest scientific knowledge, and to identify sticking points. “Hopefully that will lead to new regulations within the European Union for genetically engineered crops. At present we are failing to seize opportunities to make agriculture even more sustainable.”