BY IAN DOIG • GRAPHIC COURTESY OF CROPLIFE CANADA
With the use of new biotechnology processes known as gene editing, a revolution in plant breeding technology is now underway. Methods such as CRISPR/Cas9, the best-known gene editing process, can carry out targeted changes within crop and livestock genes. Naturally, there is fear within the farm and agri-food sectors that foods produced via this technology will face public resistance as GMO crops once did.
Such worries may be overblown. Anti-GMO rhetoric is certainly alive and emblazoned upon food packaging at your local grocery mart, but has lost much of its zeal. It was way back in the middle of the previous decade Bill Nye, scientist and former host of the beloved kids’ TV series Bill Nye the Science Guy, notably endorsed GMO food and technology. Public debate aside, the rollout of new GMO crops has continued for nearly three decades.
The pendulum has swung back towards acceptance of biotechnology in crop production. Potentially game changing, gene editing is a biotechnology tool broadly touted as a potential solution to pressing ag sustainability issues. Biotechnology has also been used to create vaccines that have very effectively fought COVID-19 across the globe. Further supportive, as part of its proposed guidelines for plant breeding released March 25, Health Canada concluded gene-editing technologies present no unique plant breeding safety concerns. Nonetheless, the anti-GMO era is a stark object lesson that has prompted crop industry lobby groups such as CropLife Canada to leverage these positives in support of public acceptance. The value of doing so is reflected in Sateesh Kagale’s estimation of its use as a low-cost precision breeding tool.
“I believe the possibilities with gene editing are endless,” said Kagale, a National Research Council Canada research scientist in crop genetics and genomics and a University of Saskatchewan department of Plant Sciences adjunct professor. “Gene editing is not a magic bullet but a game-changing complement to conventional breeding. Farmers will have the opportunity to obtain crop varieties with desired traits quickly and affordably,” said Kagale. This will include the creation of new varieties adapted to local conditions.
“Plant breeders aim to improve multiple traits simultaneously, a task made more difficult by strong genetic linkages between traits,” said Kagale. “Gene editing can help deliver varieties with trait combinations most desired by wheat breeders and farmers. Potential gene-editing targets range from agronomic traits to disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, herbicide tolerance, yield improvement and grain quality enhancement.” Evermore in demand by consumers, such on-farm benefits promise to reduce the environmental impact of crop production.
Kagale works on the 4DWheat: Diversity, Discovery, Design and Delivery project. One of its mandates is to implement gene editing methods in crop breeding. It is funded by various private and public sector partners in concert with Genome Canada, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the broad use of genomics for social and economic benefit. The project will identify previously hidden crop traits in wild wheat relatives. These untamed cousins will be made usable to crop breeders as a rich new source of germplasm. Gene editing can also be used in the plant breeding process to salvage promising newly developed varieties that prove to be near misses. Where a breeding program might produce hundreds of potential new breeding lines, some of these may fall just shy of extraordinary. Gene editing can turn these losers into magnificent winners that can then be used to assist varietal development in the quest for greater agronomics and stronger disease resistance.
With the National Research Council, Kagale participated in the 2017 development of a breeder-friendly gene editing platform intended to carry out such agronomic improvements. Methods to employ CRISPR were not well developed prior to this, and the project team created what Kagale calls a “comprehensive molecular toolkit” to get the job done. The platform will be used to develop improved agronomic and end-use quality traits in wheat, including through the 4DWheat project. It can also be applied to additional crops such as canola, peas and lentils.
CropLife Canada, in partnership with Seeds Canada, and supported by 30 ag-value chain organizations has launched the Nature Nurtured campaign, a gene editing awareness and advocacy program. “Gene editing is a tool for plant breeders,” said Ian Affleck, CropLife vice-president of plant biotechnology. “And just like we don’t celebrate the hammer when someone builds a beautiful home, we shouldn’t focus on gene editing when someone builds a great variety. Plant breeders have dedicated their careers to moving varieties forward, and this will help them do that even better.”
This may not be the headline-grabbing story that fires the public’s imagination, admits Affleck. The first such high-profile project was the commercialization of Calyxt soybeans, a variety high in oleic oil. The U.S. agri-food company released its Calyno oil in early 2019. Marketed as a premium, non-GMO ingredient, the zero trans fat product is low in saturated fatty acids. It also has three times the shelf life of typical commodity soybean oils.
A comparable cereals example might be a new wheat variety that doubles the fibre in a loaf of bread. “This is the stuff the public will be very interested in, but to me, that’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Affleck. “So much of the power of gene editing is just making the breeding we do more efficient and effective.” If breeders can create higher yielding varieties with better disease resistance in six to eight years rather than a decade, this will be a great on-farm benefit, he said. “Better varieties help make a farm more economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.”
Affleck was encouraged to see Health Canada recently propose that gene editing should be regulated in the same manner as conventional breeding. This will encourage its use and put the country on equal footing with innovative trade competitors such as Argentina, Australia, Japan and the U.S., he said. “[We must] make sure we get the right environment for innovation at home, and that we prepare our trading partners to accept those products so we don’t end up with any trade challenges. If you can’t sell it, you can’t grow it.”
The ag industry must communicate with the public on this subject in the way that it failed to do with GMOs, he said. When they’re given factual information, consumers are more likely to be comfortable with innovations such as gene editing. An indicator this approach can turn the tide against misinformation prevalent on the internet, CropLife consumer polling has seen negative impressions of biotechnology decline to 10 per cent from 18 per cent of respondents between 2010 and 2020.
As well, the proliferation of food labels created by organizations such as The Non-GMO Project are not a direct representation of consumer demand for non-GMO products. It reflects a broad labelling trend in which product packaging promises the absence of various ingredients, said Affleck.
Rather than advocate for certain policies, Nature Nurtured describes the science and outlines the benefits of gene editing to the public on its website and on social media. This has included a light-hearted, pun-heavy informational campaign that featured lines such as “Lettuce use plants to help beet diseases” and “Turnip the innovation, Canada.”
Government policy makers are the ultimate target of such advocacy, but Kagale describes the global gene editing regulatory landscape as unsettled, which may impede uptake of the technology. “Attitudes towards the nuances of gene editing will have huge impacts on how this technology is implemented and traded across the world,” he said. “But global momentum is building around use of CRISPR in crop breeding, so I am anticipating exciting times ahead.”
Krista Thomas, Canada Grains Council vice-president of seed innovation and trade policy, said, for its part, Health Canada’s proposed plant breeding guidelines have done much to clarify when new varieties will require a premarket safety assessment. She believes this will encourage Canadian research by helping seed companies and plant breeders plan and fund their programs. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also part of the regulatory process and is now engaged in consultations that may affect policy in this area. “The lack of clarity in the regulatory system has really been a roadblock for plant breeders bringing the most innovative varieties forward in Canada,” said Thomas.
“The message from Health Canada is really that gene editing is just as safe as conventional breeding and other types of plant breeding,” she added. “It sends a signal that Canada is a science-based regulator and is open for innovation.”
For more information on NatureNurtured, visit naturenurtured.ca.