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 off 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”).
That’s why the work described in “These Are Not Your Father’s GMOs”, 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.