This article was originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 7, 2023
By Erik Fyrwald, CEO Syngenta Group
While the European Commission proposed revising its rules on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) in agriculture on Wednesday, it is worth considering the context in which the proposal of new rules were developed. Climate change, geopolitical conflict and rising input prices have put farmers large and small under heavy pressure to increase production and efficiency while reducing environmental impacts.
As times have gotten tougher for growers, the result has been a sharp decline in food security for millions of people in every corner of the world and much higher cost for food in many European countries. The United Nations estimates that more than 800 million people do not have access to healthy, affordable nutrition, and the number of those facing acute food insecurity has doubled since 2020, to 345 million.
At the same time, climate change is raising average temperatures – Europe experienced its hottest summer on record in 2022 – contributing to more frequent episodes of drought and extreme weather causing unfamiliar pests to gain a foothold in regions where they were once unknown. Like everyone else, the world’s farmers are doing their best to get a good result from the challenging cards that have been dealt to them. But they all agree that full advantage should be taken of the best and latest science-based technologies and techniques now available in agriculture. Among the most promising of these is gene editing, represented first and foremost by the CRISPR-Cas technology also known as the genetic scissors.
Responding to global challenges
In the course of my own work, I often go out into the field to meet directly with farmers from around the world. I find it extremely helpful to hear them talk about their concrete challenges and needs. Just last week, I met with farmers from the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Ukraine, who aired their concerns about high temperatures and drought, flooding and high winds. Some of them had faced all four conditions in just one growing season.
They also discussed the pressure they are under from regulators and other stakeholders to reduce the application of chemistry and their carbon footprint. They were universally working to implement more regenerative practices like low or no till, planting cover crops, crop rotation and the precise application of chemicals and biologicals. These techniques contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve soil health, protect biodiversity and water scarcity, and increase farm productivity and profitability. But they were also in uniform agreement on the need to deploy new technologies to ensure the enduring success of these new practices.
The technologies they cited included better crop protection chemistry and the use of complementary biological inputs to control diseases and pests more effectively. But one of their most urgent needs is better crop varieties and traits that lead to higher yields and increased resistance to weather and pests, while simultaneously supporting soil health and providing better value to consumers like longer shelf-life and better taste.
The NGT Regulation proposed by the European Commission clearly affirms that gene editing has the potential to provide all of these benefits. GMOs, which have been around since the 1980s, have also served a useful purpose over the years. But they relied on less precise methodology than gene editing does. Plant transformation through the use of gene guns or agrobacterium developed in the 1980s was used to insert DNA from other organisms into target plants. In contrast, CRISPR-Cas allows for highly specific editing of a plant’s existing DNA sequence, making it possible to adjust individual traits with a high degree of precision.
That breakthrough in gene editing, for which biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier received the Nobel Prize in 2020, has already begun to result in the development of new plant varieties hardy enough to thrive in the face of challenging conditions. Even before the advent of gene editing, it is estimated that about half of the productivity gains achieved since the Green Revolution of the 1960s could be attributed to new seed varieties. With these new techniques, focused and specific changes in traits can be achieved at a significantly accelerated pace compared the traditional incremental improvements of the past.
Serving farmers through innovation
The new genomic techniques and CRISPR-Cas tools are now poised to deliver on the urgent requests we have been fielding from the world’s growers. I can immediately point to a few strong examples that have recently become available on the market, benefitting farmers and consumers. Among them is a variety of cauliflower that stays white even when its head, or curd, is exposed to the sun. This labor-saving trait eliminates the need to cover the curds in the fields, improves the final color quality, and cuts down on waste by reducing rejection rates.
Other new products include our IDEAL Melons, a great example of how innovation in seeds is critical to cutting food waste and improving sustainability. In total, a third of all food around the world is wasted, costing the global economy about $1 trillion a year. Cutting waste is key to improving global food security and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. IDEAL Melons have a special rind, which changes from green to a golden straw color, letting farmers know when they are ready to be harvested, shipped and sold. This innovation is the result of advanced conventional breeding and was recognized with the Fruit Logistica 2023 Innovation Silver Award at the world’s leading fruit and vegetable trade show in Berlin.
At the same time, scientists are breeding crops with larger roots, to help plants better access water in the soil, even under drought conditions. Deeper roots are helpful to most plants, helping them survive high winds and flooding. New high-yield hybrid wheat varieties, suited to drier conditions, have been shown to produce yields up to 10% higher than those offered by other varieties under comparable abiotic stress conditions. For crops that are self-pollinating, it has traditionally been difficult to cross-breed, and progress in developing hybrids like hybrid wheat has always been slow and painstaking – until very recently using modern breeding tools, which has greatly increased our ability to deliver such innovation much faster.
Indeed, new genomic techniques have dramatically expanded our capacity to strengthen existing varieties and provide farmers with seeds that will lead to higher yields on existing farmland in a more environmentally friendly way. At the moment, the list of exciting and promising new seed trait projects seems almost endless. From new tomato varieties that are resistant to diseases and pests and with long shelf-life, to new soybean varieties that contain heart-healthy oils, to winter oilseed cover crops that can be used to produce sustainable aviation fuel, science is pushing the boundaries of possibility and extending the functionality of existing varieties.
Addressing food security and climate change
Every one of these examples represents a variety that could theoretically be developed through natural breeding over a long stretch of time. The new genomic tools should enable their development in just a few years instead. They offer a critical resource if we hope to achieve our goals now, versus at some distant point in the future, when success might well come too late.
The new rules proposed by the European Commission to regulate NGTs across Europe represent a welcome potential evolution in EU policy. Interest groups are already lined up on every aspect of the issue, and observers expect the coming legislative process to be complex and divisive. I’d wish to ask all parties to exercise restraint and to remain open to the views and objectives of other participants in the discussion. For scientists working in the agronomy sector, the goal will always be to support the needs of farmers, who are on the front lines of the fight against climate change – and of consumers, who have a right to demand reliable access to affordable, safe and nutritious food for themselves and their families.
The positive outcomes we all desire are now well within reach as it appears that the EU is recognizing the need for innovative technologies to be included in farmers’ toolboxes. Together we can support the vital goals we all share, strive for better technologies for farmers and make agriculture more sustainable while addressing climate change and food security.
This article was originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 7, 2023.