CRISPRcon 2020 Revisited: Peering into the Ag Pipeline

The second discussion of CRISPRcon’s theme of Hope and Hype, which was held on Oct. 1, took a deeper dive into what benefits gene editing and prior genetic technologies have delivered thus far in the agriculture sector and what might be on the horizon. The panel also discussed what can we learn from the past regarding the role of biotechnology in addressing pressing agricultural challenges.

Franklin Holley, director of the Agriculture & Food Program at the Keystone Policy Center, moderated the panel and explained the session’s intent.

“This session is not necessarily a catalogue of [new] products. It’s more about whether there’s a potential for societal benefit of gene edited products and how those products should be prioritized and assessed,” said Holley.

Leland Glenna, professor of rural sociology and science, technology, and society at Penn State University, drew upon society’s experience from the promises of transgenics in the 1990s,which he thinks failed to come to fruition because there was little investment in orphan or globally minor (though regionally or nationally major) crops. The benefits that did come during that era mostly went to major crops like corn, soybeans and canola. Glenna believes the decline in public sector investment in agricultural research is one reason for this.

“I’m not saying the private sector should not be involved in this. What I’m saying is we’re not going to see the kinds of investments developing some of these systems in orphan crops like cassava or peanuts…we are not likely to see a private company invest in that research because these are just small farmers with very little resources,” said Glenna.

Michael Doane, global managing director for sustainable food and water for The Nature Conservancy, argued that one potential benefit of modern gene editing products in agriculture, compared to early transgenics technology, is a possible increase in affordability that would allow more countries, individual farmers, and other entities to benefit.

“I think that one of the real distinguishing characteristics about gene editing and the various platforms that are being deployed to make some of these new products is hopefully that cost and application could be wider,” said Doane.

Chris Newman, co-founder of Sylvanaqua Farms, expressed skepticism over the potential impact of gene editing. A member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, Newman echoed sentiments discussed during CRISPRcon’s earlier panel on Indigenous perspectives that Indigenous people are already accomplishing most of the world’s biodiversity protection without gene editing technology.

“For me and for Indigenous people, biodiversity is the function of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. And when it comes to biodiversity, Indigenous people around the world—in the global north and the global south—tend to be best at it,” said Newman. “It’s not being done through market-based agriculture.”

Newman’s concerns went beyond the technology itself but rather to who owns and controls the technology. Modesta N. Abugu, fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, shared a similar perspective.  Despite the potential benefits and advantages of technology – which she does believe is necessary to meet the challenges of climate change—there still needs to be improvements in access and trust.

“If we want to control some of the impact climate change is having on agriculture, going the way of modern technology is the best way to go. That said, I believe that the potentials for gene editing has more room to improve trust and to improve access than they did for GMOs,” said Abugu.

The panel also discussed regulations and their impact, using gene editing along with Indigenous techniques, expectations for societal benefits of gene editing, animal agriculture, and developing a more efficient food system. Speakers concluded by offering their advice to today’s scientists working on gene editing in agriculture. The full session is available below.