Tom Willey is a recently retired farmer who ran a certified organic farm for over three decades. When it comes to CRISPR technology, the gene editing system found in nature, and applying it to agriculture he says, “I describe myself as a critical, middle-of-the-roader. I think there are opportunities for using this technology positively, but it’s not so much the technology as how it is going to be applied.”
Using CRISPR to genetically tweak our crops isn’t something everyone’s on board with yet. Some farmers, like Willey, are cautious, which is at least partly due to the fact that the technology is being cultivated in academic labs and by agriculture giants like Monsanto that aren’t necessarily including them in the development. GMOs, the development and implementation of which largely excluded public discussion, have also been a widespread civic disaster.
However, our food supply is facing a number of looming threats, including how to feed the nine billion people expected to populate the earth by 2050. And though CRISPR technology can help us prepare for them, the companies working on bringing it to agriculture will have to overcome the distrust cultivated by GMOs as well as make sure everyone—industry, farmers, and the public—is involved in the discussions of its use.
“I think there are two really big challenges that are gathering momentum and that are going to be impacting agriculture throughout the next 20, 30 years,” says Armin Scheben, a researcher in the School of Plant Biology at the University of Western Australia. “And those challenges are a growing human population and climate change in all its forms.”
Scheben says that food demand will double in the coming decades. But current methods, such as improved land management and more effective irrigation and fertilization systems, won’t cut it.. “How can we get more out of our crops faster than we’re currently doing?” says Scheben.
One way CRISPR could help is by speeding up the breeding process. Unlike GMOs, where a foreign gene is inserted into the crop to create a change, with CRISPR, researchers can make small changes in the native DNA that could also occur there in nature. So scientists could boost one particular trait that might help a crop produce more or withstand environmental threats. And rather than using selective breeding to do this slowly, over the course of many years or decades, with CRISPR, scientists can do it in just a couple of years. So far, researchers have developed various strains of tomatoes that can resist disease, ripen faster, and don’t produce seeds.
And rather than just focusing on one target, with CRISPR, breeders could tackle multiple targets at the same time. An example would be to use CRISPR to increase photosynthesis efficiency. In theory, we could have plants that produce the same amounts of seeds, fruits and vegetables with less fertilizer and less energy.
CRISPR’s success, as we’ve reported, will heavily depend on how the public views it, how governments regulate it, and therefore, how the agriculture industry presents it. “I think it’s very important that we don’t make the same mistakes that might have been made with the introduction of GMOs, where in some countries, especially Europe, there was a big backlash against them and a lot of nationwide bans have been put in place,” says Scheben. “We’re not creating some kind of strange monsters in the lab, actually we’re just harnessing a natural process that breeders and farmers have been using since the dawn of agriculture.”
However, Willey says that though he sees CRISPR written about in scientific publications, he doesn’t see it written about in agricultural ones. “Honest to goodness, I don’t know very many farmers who even know what CRISPR is or are paying that much attention to this upgrade in technology of genetic manipulation technology.”
But it’s clear that interest among farmers is growing. At a recent conference about CRISPR held at the University of California, Berkeley, representatives from grower associations like the NCGA, the American Seed Trade Association, the United Soybean Board, and the California Farm Bureau Federation were in attendance.
And some in the industry are optimistic about CRISPR. Nathan Fields the director of biotechnology and crop inputs at the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), said, “We’re excited for the potential. We don’t want to overhype the technology but really just put it in context that it’s another really good potential tool for growers to adapt to environmental challenges.”
However, some feel differently. Asher Wright,the farm manager at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, is more hesitant. His skepticism, he said, isn’t about human health but about the socio-political and environmental implications of its use. “I have a hard time, ethically, with the patenting of life,” he says, “and how that impacts farmer innovation and their ability to advance.”
And while Fields said the response to CRISPR in the grower community is generally positive, Willey says he’s not sure that’s the case. “I think there’s a lot of controversy over whether farmers are driving for these technologies or whether these technologies are manipulating farmers,” he says. “I think you’ll get answers on both sides of that issue.” Wright agrees. “I definitely think that is a concern,” he says. “I don't think farmers are driving those decisions at all. I think the large companies that produce these technologies are driving those technologies hard.”
Even if CRISPR does help solve some problems, Willey says, it probably won’t solve them all. “I just don’t see it as the panacea that many people in the technology industry seem to think it is,” he says. Willey stresses that the impacts agriculture has on the natural resource base are massive and no single technology is going to solve that. “It’s not about coming up with one or two CRISPR products,” he says, “it’s about looking at the whole approach to the ecology around agriculture and making it more friendly to the natural systems within which it works and interacts.”
“The cow’s out of the barn with this kind of technology,” says Willey. “These technologies are here, they’re here to stay, we have the capacity to manipulate genomes and we’re going to do it. So we just have to hope that we can go about doing so wisely.”
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