How gene-edited crops could solve the food crisis

·7-min read
GM foods
GM foods

You might not think that we produce many tomatoes in Britain, but we do: about 100,000 tons, a fifth of our annual consumption. Yet British tomato farmers face a problem: powdery mildew, a disease against which their principal defence has long been fungicide.

There is another way. By snipping out 48 nucleotides – the basic building blocks of DNA – it is possible to create a tomato that is more resistant to mildew, making it cheaper to produce and, because it needs to be sprayed less, better for the environment.

It seems a no-brainer. Nothing is added to the tomato. Rather, a vulnerability is simply removed. And a few years ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge did just that, using a precision gene-editing technique known as Crispr. But then they faced their own problem – the fact that, unlike large parts of the world, Britain and the EU were adamantly opposed to such techniques, and the benefits they bring.

“Our scientists were among the very first to develop gene editing in plants, a technology that carries so much potential and so many opportunities for world agriculture,” Professor Sophien Kamoun, group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, said recently. “Yet, we had to sit back and watch other countries, like the US and Japan, bring their bio-edited plants to market.”

No longer. The Government is introducing legislation relaxing the restrictions on the sowing of gene-edited crops, with sources telling The Daily Telegraph that they will help protect Britain from the growing threat to food security posed by climate change and the war in Ukraine.

Not a moment too soon. Last week Sara Menker, the CEO of agriculture analytics firm Gro Intelligence, told the United Nations that wheat stocks around the world were running dangerously low. “We currently only have 10 weeks of global consumption sitting in inventory around the world,” she said, adding that “similar inventory concerns also apply to corn and other grains” and that this represented “the lowest grain inventory levels the world has ever seen”.

“This is an incredibly important issue,” says Murray Grant, professor of food security at the University of Warwick. “I don’t think people understand what’s going to happen. Fertiliser prices have quadrupled. Wheat prices are predicted to double this year. It’s one of these perfect storms. We all know about the energy crisis, but we’ve got this food crisis too.” Referring to the chain of violent discontent that erupted a decade ago as food prices spiralled in North Africa and the Middle East, he adds: “We all remember what [helped to drive] the Arab Spring.”

The fallout from Ukraine will not take long to reach these shores. Take cooking oil. Global production has already been hit by drought in America affecting maize crops. But shortages have edged into crisis given that Ukraine exports around half the world’s supply of sunflower oil. Britain could turn to oil seed rape as a substitute. Along with wheat and barley, it has long been one of the country’s three big crops. According to Prof Grant, however, it has recently been hit by a ban on neonicotinoid-based pesticides, used to control the cabbage stem flea beetle. Unfortunately, the pesticides also wreaked havoc upon pollinators. But without the chemicals, “oil seed rape harvests have dropped 30 per cent. You can’t afford that”. Which explains why projects are under way to develop genetically edited strains of oil seed rape that are less palatable to the beetle.

Stopping the spread of disease can also come down to genetics, says Professor Johnathan Napier at Rothamsted Research, a venerable agricultural institute that forms part of this country’s world-leading plant science sector. “Most pathogens latch on to a plant by recognising a host protein. If you edit out that recognition factor you effectively make the pathogen blind to the crop.”

For the consumer, gene-editing crops could lead to a whole range of convenient foods – salad leaves rich in nutrients, cherries without stones, or coffee that is naturally decaffeinated, for example. But, according to Professor Napier, the big wins will be elsewhere.

One will be removing allergens that can cause sometimes fatal reactions. Above all, farmers will be able to plant crops resistant to disease and insects, driving higher yields and greater efficiencies that could lower costs – at a time when war, pestilence and drought are causing food prices to rocket.

In Sri Lanka, the costs of disrupting food supply are all too evident. There, 18 months ago, says Prof Napier, “the Government decided to impose organic farming as the main production system. And I’m sure there were lots of good reasons for doing that. But it was just a really, really bad way of interfering in food production.” Today, the island is riven by political instability and rioting.

It is an illustration, he says, of the fundamental consumer driver when it comes to food: price. “When they are surveyed, people express all sorts of preferences about organic or GM food,” says Prof Napier, “but, for the majority, those preferences become secondary to rising prices during a global food shock like the one we have now as a consequence of the conflict in Ukraine. We need to sort of get our house in order and make sure that food security is back on the agenda.”

This then may prove to be a very different environment to the turn of the century, when the introduction of genetically altered foods was met with fierce consumer resistance. Then, however, it was not today’s genetically-edited foods, which have DNA removed, but genetically-modified foods, which splice in DNA from another species, that got the cold shoulder.  “Gene-editing removes DNA, genetic modification adds it,” says Prof Napier. That difference, scientists think, should make a significant difference in winning public acceptance this time around. Many emphasise that gene editing, unlike modification, is actually the harnessing of a “natural process”.

“It allows us, for the first time, to make small precise changes in a plant’s existing DNA that mimic changes that could occur naturally,” says Professor Wendy Harwood, head of the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre.

Even so, the “Frankenfoods” tag first applied two decades ago casts a long shadow. Today both genetically-edited and genetically- modified foods remain verboten in the EU – despite GM being happily and safely consumed in swathes of the world for decades. “This has just huge potential and has to be one of the benefits of leaving the EU,” says Prof Grant.

The question today is whether the belated adoption of such techniques changes will allow Brexit Britain better to secure its food supplies. According to government figures, Britain imports just under half of the food it consumes, deploying 71 per cent of the country’s landmass in farming. “Resilience is ensured through a combination of strong domestic production from the UK’s productive agriculture and food manufacturing sectors, and a diverse range of overseas supply sources,” notes the latest Food Security Report.

Self-sufficiency, says Prof Napier, “is a pipe dream, but greater resilience is not. And we could certainly embrace these novel genetic technologies to make our farming system more efficient and more sustainable”.

Many suggest that doing so would jeopardise Britain’s trading relationship with the EU, Prof Napier adds. “But the EU imports millions and millions of tons of GM soya and maize every year as animal feed,” he says. “Their animal production system would collapse if they weren’t doing so. People scaremonger that you’re not going to be able to access the European market [with genetically altered foods]. That’s not true.”

If prices change public attitudes today, the consequences are likely to be far-reaching tomorrow. While some scientists talk about immediate “input” benefits for the farmer – disease resistance or lower water use – others focus on longer term gains for us, the customers.

“I’m most interested in nutritional security,” says Prof Grant. He means genetically boosting vital vitamins and minerals in foods to make sure we are getting enough. This concept, a bit like lacing drinking water with fluoride to improve our teeth, is already in place in Uganda, where GM bananas are fortified with vitamin A, lack of which can cause blindness in children. “Literally millions suffer,” Pro Grant notes.

Even in Western countries like Britain, interventions could be highly significant. Napier says his colleagues are working on gene-editing wheat so that it produces less acrylamide, considered a likely cause of cancer, when toasted or baked.

What may win acceptance initially for saving pounds and pennies during this global food shock, then, may come to be loved for saving lives, as well as the humble British breakfast.

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