Innovation is at the heart of the Canadian agriculture industry. Farmers today produce more crop per acre than at any other time in history – and they do it in a way that is more sustainable than ever. Gene editing technology will soon give farmers more options when it comes to crops that can better resist insects and diseases, more efficiently use resources, help farmers adapt to changing climate conditions and grow crops with added benefits for processors and consumers.
One particular type of gene editing, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), holds such promise that its creators, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.
“While gene editing is a technology that has applications across various sectors like healthcare, energy and industrial materials, it also has the potential to drive big advances in agriculture. It’s a tool that can help develop crop varieties that are disease resistant and can adapt to changing climate conditions, and it can be used to improve the quality and quantity of our food supply,” says Pierre Petelle, president and CEO of CropLife Canada.
By working within the plant’s own genetic code, gene editing tools like CRISPR allow scientists to add or enhance beneficial characteristics of plants, and remove negative ones – all without adding anything that wasn’t already there. This process for improving plants is more precise and efficient than any other form of plant breeding to date and is leading to stronger and healthier plants that are good for farmers, the environment, and consumers.
Advances in plant breeding have greatly benefited both farmers and consumers. Genetically modified crops have been part of that success story over the last 25 years helping to make farming more efficient, sustainable and resilient.
Gene editing is part of the continuum of plant breeding innovations. While genetic engineering and gene editing are both approaches to plant breeding, genetically modified organisms typically include DNA from another organism, gene editing focuses on working within a plant’s own genetic code.
This means that the changes made to a plant through gene editing are similar to the kinds of changes you might expect to see through the plant breeding we have been doing for thousands of years. Gene editing just lets us make them in a quicker and more precise way.
“The more tools agriculture has in its toolbox the better,” says Petelle. “We’ve seen the power of biotechnology in the development of vaccines to help the world overcome the current global health challenge, we can leverage the same kinds of innovation in agriculture to ensure we can continue to grow high quality food for Canadians and the world in the face of challenges like climate change.”
Gene editing will be key to helping drive greater sustainability in agriculture by helping farmers grow more on existing land, using fewer resources. And as climate change creates increasingly unpredictable growing conditions, gene editing can lead heartier plants that can better withstand difficult conditions.
“These innovations are critical to our sustainability efforts and Canada’s environmental future. It is imperative that farmers have access to modern farming tools, and that Canada is a place that enables this kind of innovation that will help make us a leader in innovative climate solutions,” says Andre Harpe, chair of the Grain Growers of Canada.
Consumers will directly benefit from gene editing, too. Researchers are working on making food healthier, for example by lowering saturated or trans fat or increasing the quantity of nutritional components. There’s also work underway to reduce the allergens in certain crops like peanuts. And gene editing may be an important tool in fighting food waste by developing varieties of some of our favourite fruits and vegetables that do not go brown as quickly.
Consumers can rest assured that gene edited foods are safe. Scientists and government regulators around the world have concluded that gene editing does not pose any additional risks than traditional plant breeding. Plant breeding in Canada, regardless of the method, has built-in safeguards to ensure new commercial varieties are safe for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
As is the case with any new innovation, consumers and policy makers have questions. “Nature, Nurtured” is an initiative to increase awareness of the benefits of gene editing, while answering questions people may have about it. The initiative is supported by CropLife Canada as well as a group of value chain partners and individuals who want Canada to reap the economic, environmental, and consumer benefits of agricultural innovations like gene editing in Canada.