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Gene editing can help us produce crops fit for today’s challenges

(Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo)

Lord Cameron

Lord Cameron

3 min read

In this short article I don’t want to revisit the parliamentary discussions that took place over the Precision Breeding Act, but I thought I would share my optimism about some of the possibilities for food production that gene editing techniques offer a world in which 345 million people are currently facing acute food insecurity, and where over 3,000 people a day are dying from starvation in East Africa alone.

In sub-Saharan Africa the population is likely to grow by an extra one billion people over the next 30 to 40 years. Their food production capacity needs a lot of help in many different ways, but one of the things scientists can do is to produce seeds that are more resilient in the face of numerous threats. 

We need to breed a whole variety of plants that can resist the many different diseases and pests present in every country, without having to put chemicals into the environment. This has special importance in the developing world where literacy and numeracy are often a problem amongst farmers, so that chemicals can get used far too liberally – often to the detriment of the farmers’ health. The other thing about gene resistance to pests is that it is better for biodiversity because unlike with sprays the pest is not actually destroyed, but it is just the crop that is protected from the pest. 

We need to breed plants that can resist the ever-increasing droughts brought about by climate change. Irrigation schemes are expensive and use valuable water – seeds are much cheaper. So you can either breed a plant that requires less water, or breed one which comes to harvest two or three weeks earlier – during which time its older counterpart might have shrivelled and died. We need to breed plants that are salt-tolerant and others which produce grain less susceptible to the dreadful post-harvest losses you get in Africa. 

We need plants which have improved nutritional qualities, or a longer shelf life

In other countries, especially where rice is grown, we need to breed plants that can resist flooding: either those that can stay alive underwater for several days, or those, which when threatened, spurt upwards to keep their heads above the flood waters. We need cassava plants that don’t have to be dried and processed within 24 hours, and cocoa plants that are resistant to mildew and Phytophthora. Maybe, we can also breed crops that give children access to vital vitamins and minerals such as zinc or iron – deficits of which can cause blindness, stunting and cognitive degeneration. 

Meanwhile back at home, we need plants which have improved nutritional qualities, or a longer shelf life so the supermarkets can reduce the need for plastic. We need wheat with minimum gluten content to help coeliacs. Or maybe tomatoes that can be grown in an urban context – i.e. small plants covered with fruit that can grow on walls or in window boxes. 

I should point out that we are not only talking here about wheat, maize and rice, upon which crops our world is, in my opinion, worryingly over-dependent. But urgent work is needed on a whole variety of crops including tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, cowpea, sorghum, millet, coffee, cocoa, fruits and vegetables etc. We do not have time for the 10 to 20 harvests that are needed for the random chance mutations that traditional breeding provides. All of these different crops need urgent attention and I have every expectation that our great scientific community can work with their colleagues in other countries to overcome many of the local problems faced by farmers.

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