Isn’t gene editing a better form of crossbreeding? 

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England) is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation Last month the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety committee (ENVI) of the European Parliament voted to oppose the European Union’s plan to approve four crops—varieties of cotton, soybeans, and maize (corn)—genetically modified to resist herbicides. Their vote exemplifies the mistaken belief that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are unsafe. No one would be sadder than the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Aside from scientists and students in agricultural colleges, few people have heard of Borlaug. Yet, he has been called The Man Who Fed the World. He developed modern varieties of rice, wheat, maize, and other food crops now used all over the world. His high-yield, disease-resistant crop varieties feed billions. But before today’s students can study the history of crossbreeding, they are bombarded with anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) messages from non-profits and environmental activists. Crossbreeding Crossbreeding, like that done by Borlaug, brings out the best traits of plants in order to achieve higher productivity. For example, Borlaug crossbred numerous wheat varieties to produce high-yield varieties. But their stalks could not support the weight of the additional wheat. So he crossbred them with a Japanese dwarf variety. The final product—semi-dwarf wheat—was disease resistant, high yielding, and strong. It was revolutionary. Today it dominates 99 percent of wheat grown globally. Borlaug did the same with many other food crops, including rice and maize. As a result, almost every corner of the world now grows his disease-resistant, high-yield crops. The wheat, rice, or maize you eat today almost certainly has Borlaug’s handprints on it. He is globally recognized as the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’. In addition to his Nobel, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Science—and many other awards. Gene editing: an advanced form of crossbreeding Fears of genetically modified organisms are rooted in misunderstanding. In principle, genetic modification is the same as crossbreeding. It combines traits of several varieties to produce high-yield, disease-resistant, environmentally-adapted crops that enhance food security. Most plant varieties we eat today went through careful crossbreeding before they became fit for human consumption. Surprisingly, even the methodology is the same: identifying desirable gene traits and making food crop variants that have a stronger expression of genes with beneficial characteristics. The only difference is that modern genetic modification happens at the molecular/microscopic level, whereas earlier crossbreeding occurred at the macroscopic level without high-precision technology. “Genetic transformation is a very powerful tool for generating scientific proof of the roles and functions of key-genes. Based on the knowledge of functional genomics, plant biologists can alter the structures and functions of selected key-genes through genetic manipulation,” explains a recent paper in BioMed Research International. There are many methods of gene editing, but the most popular is known as CRISPR-Cas9 (bacterial Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Introduced in 2012, it revolutionized the field of eukaryotic genome editing. Unlike earlier techniques, CRISPR-Cas9 does not introduce foreign genes into an organism. As explained in a 2018 article in the Wall Street Journal, “The new gene-editing technologies enable scientists to achieve some of the same effects by altering the plants’ own DNA, without inserting new genes. With CRISPR-Cas9, the most widely used system, scientists can program genetic guides to target a location along the plant’s DNA, where the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA. The cells change the DNA sequence as the cut is repaired.” Because CRISPR-Cas9 is widely accepted across the globe and is operationally simple, it has become the scientific community’s preferred gene editing technique. Some of the recent outcomes of CRISPR technology include drought-resistant corn, wheat with less gluten, and tomatoes with easy-to-remove stems. So technically, what traditional crossbreeding achieved through painstaking, time-consuming hybridization, gene editing achieves with more precision. Portraying genetic modification as something new and alien to farmers is pure propaganda. Speaking to researchers and food scientists in Nairobi, Kenya, Borlaug said, “there is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous. After all, mother nature has been doing this kind of thing for God knows how long. We need sophisticated scientific technology to boost our production.” He even supported earlier forms of genetic editing that involved introducing foreign genes into a plant’s genetic composition: “If we could get a gene from rice—because rice does not suffer from rust—and then use it to protect other crops that suffer from rust like wheat, that would be a big revolution, and that will not be dangerous to human health in any way.” Borlaug wasn’t alone in supporting genetically edited/modified organisms. Over the past several years, health and agricultural agencies of the US and Canada have approved multiple genetically modified crop varieties. Not long ago, more than 500 scientists signed a petition calling for increased use of GMOs. They believe GM crops are perfectly safe for consumption, and the greatest tool in tackling global poverty and malnutrition. Modern gene editing techniques are not evil. They will ensure the future of global food security.
... more than 500 scientists signed a petition calling for increased use of GMOs. They believe GM crops are perfectly safe for consumption, and the greatest tool in tackling global poverty and malnutrition