This interview was conducted on behalf of the CRISPR Agbio & NBT Congress
(May 29- 31, 2018 - San Diego).
What is the current status and direction of CRISPR & NBTs application in agriculture?
As with all breeding methods they are being used to improve traits of importance to the breeding objectives of food plant and animal genetic improvement programs. Such traits include disease resistance, resilience, and improved efficiency.
CRISPR & NBTs: How should you choose the right tool in the toolbox to improve and accelerate genome editing R&D processes in agriculture?
Breeders will use the most efficient breeding tools that are available to enable genetic improvement. In some cases this might include gene editing reagents.
Gene editing will not replace conventional breeding programs, but rather will work synergistically with conventional tools to introduce useful genetic variation to accelerate the rate of genetic gain.
What are the optimization strategies for CRISPR & NBTs in the future?
For gene editing to be routinely used in animal breeding programs, it will need to be seamlessly integrated into traditional breeding programs.
Ideally edits would be introduced into the developing embryo of the next generation of breeding stock.
If editing slows down the rate of genetic improvement (e.g. by increasing the average age at which an animal becomes a parent) or is incompatible with editing the multiple lines that are crossed to produce commercial lines, it will not be adopted in animal genetic improvement programs.
How to weigh the benefits versus potential risks of CRISP & NBT genome edited agricultural products?
"Gene editing will not replace conventional breeding programs, but rather will work synergistically with conventional tools"
As with all products, risk should be evaluated based on any novel hazards that might exist in the product and exposure, and not on the breeding method used to produce the product.
And then compared to potential benefits, AND the risks associated with not allowing the use of gene editing in breeding programs, i.e. opportunity cost especially when considering problems like disease where doing nothing results in large losses and the use of chemicals to treat the disease.
From your perspective, should CRISPR & NBTs edited products be regulated?
Regulation should be risk-based, i.e. based on any novel hazards that might exist in the product and exposure, and proportional, i.e. products with little risk should have little regulation, and those with high risk should be highly regulated.
"Similar products should not be subjected to different regulation based solely on the breeding method used to produce the product"
If there are no novel hazards in the product then there is no rationale for regulation, and implementing an expensive process-triggered regulatory framework, as was done with genetic engineering, will essentially preclude the commercialization of products developed by the public sector and small companies.
What are the best practices to earn consumer trust in genome editing and its products?
Framing is important. Genetic improvement is a huge driver of sustainability. Precluding breeder access to improved breeding methods to introduce useful genetic variation like disease resistance into selection programs has substantial environmental opportunity costs.
Emphasizing the problems that can be addressed using gene editing, rather than the technical details of the method, is important along with a discussion on alternative methods for addressing the problem, e.g. developing disease resistant plants and animals using genetics reduces the need to use chemicals such as antibiotics or crop protection products to control disease.
Elaborating the trade-offs associated with different solutions to problems facing agricultural production system is important to enable a more nuanced and informed discussion of the potential of breeding innovations to provide a genetic solution to problems such as climate variability and disease.
"Emphasizing the problems that can be addressed using gene editing, rather than the technical details of the method, is important"