Seed giants see fresh start in gene-editing
Oct. 12, 2017
The agriculture industry is betting that new technology for editing the genes of plants will yield enhanced crops -- and potentially reset a long-running debate over genetically engineered seeds.
Seed developers including Monsanto Co. and DowDuPont Inc. have invested in gene-editing technology, which enables scientists to make precise changes to plants' existing DNA. Executives say they're also strategizing on how to introduce it to consumers without arousing the same fears and suspicion that followed the development of earlier biotech crops, which involved adding genes from other species.
"There's a big piece of this that is about explaining the benefits," said Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chief executive, speaking at the WSJ Global Food Forum in New York Tuesday.
Monsanto and other agricultural companies for years have been campaigning in defense of biotech crops, which the St. Louis company helped to pioneer and launch to farmers in 1996. Those genetically modified crops have come to dominate U.S. corn, soybean and cotton fields over the past two decades, and Mr. Grant said that early worries about potential health effects hadn't come to pass.
But consumers' reservations over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have lingered amid questions over their environmental impact and their reliance on synthetic pesticides, helping nurture a rapidly growing market for foods made without genetically engineered crops.
The Non-GMO Project, which verifies food products' non-GMO status, estimated annual sales of such products at $19.2 billion.
James Collins, who heads DowDuPont's agricultural division, said that gene editing is different because the technology can be used to make edits within a plant's existing genetic code, without adding any outside genes.
For that reason, he said, gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 and TALEN resemble the centuries-old process of breeding together different strains of plants to produce an improved version.
Persuading consumers to support gene-edited crops will require engaging them "at a very local level," Mr. Collins said. The agriculture industry, he said, must communicate to people how a variety of corn, with its DNA edited to better resist drought, can help to feed a global population projected to rise to nearly 10 billion by 2050, for instance.
"You need context," said Monsanto's Mr. Grant. Today, he said, "people are further and further away from the field, and further away from how food is produced."
At DowDuPont, researchers have been developing a gene-edited version of waxy corn, used in industrial products like adhesives, and Mr. Collins said there is potential to create soybeans that produce a healthier vegetable oil when crushed and processed.
Monsanto has struck a series of licensing deals to harness various forms of gene-editing technology, and is looking at using it across a range of crops.
Some smaller firms, including Calyxt Inc. and Cibus, are using gene editing to develop new varieties of reduced-gluten wheat and herbicide-resistant canola.