Many of the biggest problems we face in the world today are biological in nature. Energy creation, health and food production can be rethought as we increasingly have the ability to interact with biology in the same way we interact with computers. As Walter Isaacson has put it, “molecules will be the new microchips.”
Progress in science and tech now means we can harness the power of nature itself, providing us with the potential to make societal progress in ways that were not previously possible. It also gives us the ability to take on global challenges.
Primary among these challenges is how we can feed the world without destroying the planet. As we set out in Technology to Feed the World, a range of frontier technologies allow us to rethink the way we produce, process and consume food. But one of the most exciting breakthroughs that could form part of the solution to this challenge is gene editing – a method that enables scientists to change the DNA of organisms.
This briefing sets out what gene editing is, how it can be used to change the way we feed the world, and some of the issues that policymakers and regulators must address to move forward with gene editing. Harnessed correctly, the impact of gene editing technologies could rival that of the semiconductor; future-thinking politicians must work to accelerate their ethical use.
Gene editing describes a range of technologies that enable us to edit the genes of an organism (including plants, bacteria and animals) by cutting and splicing sections of DNA. By changing DNA, we can change the physical traits of an organism like eye colour or disease risk. Gene editing has potential applications across agriculture, health care and research.
How Exactly Does It Work?
Every living organism – including plants and animals – has genes which consist of sequences of DNA. Genes control what an organism is like, its appearance, and what it behaves like in its environment.
Gene editing is a technique used to modify DNA precisely and efficiently within a cell, by making cuts at specific DNA sequences. You can think of it like a word processor for DNA: It can be used to add, remove, or alter DNA in the genome. By editing the genome, the characteristics of a cell or organism can be changed.
CRISPR-Cas9 is one type of gene-editing technology. It is now widely used as it is cheaper, faster and simpler than other, older gene-editing methods. But the toolkit of these technologies is much broader than the “cut and paste” function of Cas9, with advances such as the “prime editor”, which provides the ability to search and replace DNA bases in the genome with lower risk for inadvertent edits to other parts of the genome and unintended consequences.
Figure 1 – CRISPR cutting systems
How Does This Differ From Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Gene editing differs from genetic modification which involves introducing DNA from one species to another.
GMOs are generally produced when entire genes or groups of genes are transferred from one plant or animal species to another (for example, a crop could be modified to offer improved yields), whereas gene editing involves making slight changes to the existing genes in a plant or animal. Unlike genetic-modification techniques, gene editing does not involve the insertion of foreign genetic material from other species. Gene editing essentially allows us to edit genes in a way that happens anyway in nature, but much faster.
The benefits of gene editing are potentially substantial. It offers an opportunity to edit crops so we can feed the world with less land and with a lower environmental impact, even as the effects of climate change threaten food production. It could also have health benefits for consumers and offers multiple economic opportunities.
Increased yields with less land and fewer inputs. For example, tomatoes could be bred to have double the number of branches, and therefore twice the number of tomatoes. We can also reduce waste by developing potatoes that can better withstand bruising. As a result, we may need to use fewer resources like land, water, and fertilisers to produce the same or increased yield.
Increased resistance to adverse weather conditions. Climate change is and is expected to continue to result in more extreme weather patterns such as floods and droughts. Crops could be edited so they are more resistant to extreme weather patterns and can therefore be a crucial part of adapting to climate change.
Increased disease resistance for both crops and animals. Crops could be grown to be more resistant to disease. Crops can also be grown to be more resistant to pests, meaning we can reduce pesticide use and reduce waste. Animals can also be bred so they can better withstand disease, which means we could reduce use of antibiotics.
Tackling allergens and producing more nutritious produce. Crops could be grown to have reduced gluten, or soybeans could be grown to be lower in unhealthy fats. Japan has approved a gene-edited “super tomato” , which has benefits for heart health.
Improved animal welfare. Gene editing also enables breeders to introduce new traits to animals. Animals could be bred to better withstand disease, and we could even breed hornless cattle so they cannot hurt other animals they are kept alongside.
Reduced costs for farmers and cheaper food for consumers. As gene editing can make farming more efficient by raising yields and guarding crops against environmental pressures and disease, it could reduce production costs, which could have a knock-on effect for the cost of food for consumers.
A transformed political economy. Many of the first-generation commercial GM crops were developed by large agribusinesses as these companies had the funds to invest in labs and greenhouses and were able to obtain patents. Therefore, they were able to dominate the market. Gene editing may open opportunities for developing countries to grow crops without buying expensive seeds from large multinational firms. This is because it is relatively easy for those without proper training and high-tech lab facilities to use this technology. It may also enable start-ups to compete with multinational agribusinesses.
What Are the Disadvantages and Perceived Risks?
Like almost all technologies, gene editing could be used in good or bad ways. Although most scientists now agree on the opportunities presented by gene editing, some political and ethical challenges remain.
Unintended consequences. Gene editing can be described as a more precise and controllable form of genetic engineering, as tools like CRISPR can be programmed to target a specific site in the genome. However, research has found that CRISPR can produce unintended effects at the target site and in other places along the genome. Yet scientists say that these issues can be managed through carefully programming the transformed organisms to ensure the alterations are as desired. In fact, the risks can be managed much more carefully than in traditional or selective animal breeding, which has been practiced for hundreds of years and is subject to little regulation.
Knock-on effects. Some actors like Beyond GM argue that gene editing could result in some undesirable knock-on effects if not properly regulated. For example, if animals are made immune to certain diseases, it might encourage farmers to keep more animals in smaller spaces, which would have a negative impact on animal welfare. However, many scientists acknowledge that gene editing is much more likely to have positive impacts on animal welfare, for example by preventing diseases like swine flu.
Ethical considerations. The same technologies used to create gene-edited foods could be used for other potentially damaging uses. Although gene editing can be used positively in health care – for example, to develop new cancer and blood disease treatments – it raises difficult ethical questions such as whether there will be limitations to the conditions that gene editing is used to treat and fears over creating designer babies. There are also ethical questions about the way the scientific research supporting the use of CRISPR in these areas is carried out, and on the role of the scientist carrying out the gene editing, and their liability in the case of an accident.
These challenges and risks are not insurmountable if regulated properly. Traditional animal breeding also presents risks, yet is not subject to the same regulation as gene editing. Governments should aim for a flexible, outcome-based regulatory approach to protect against the undesirable effects – such as keeping animals in poor conditions – while allowing promising gene-editing applications to advance when they are demonstrably safe.
There is a lack of global consensus on the safety of gene-edited crops and how they should be regulated. Many countries and regions accept gene editing in food production, but others – such as Europe and New Zealand – have taken a more cautious approach.
US regulators say that because gene-edited crops do not contain foreign DNA (DNA from other viruses or bacteria), they do not need strict regulation or testing, like that required for GMOs. Gene editing has already been used in agriculture in the US.
However, the US approach to gene-editing regulation has been criticised for being too process-based rather than product or outcome-based (despite adopting a product-based approach in principle). In other words, the US is too focused on regulation tied to the method of gene editing, rather than an approach based on the actual risks posed by the gene-edited plant. This runs the risk of not being adaptable to new gene-editing technologies – a problem that will grow as gene-editing technology accelerates.
The European Union’s regulatory regime was built on the principle of scrutinising novelty in the environmental performance of plant and animal varieties.
GM crops in Europe are subject to a near-total ban. In July 2018, the EU’s high court ruled that gene-edited plants should be regulated in the same way as GMOs. However, the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy acknowledges that new biotechnologies may play a role in increasing sustainability and states that, in response to requests from member states, the Commission will look into the benefits of new genomic techniques. EU agriculture ministers have now required the ECJ ban to be reconsidered by April 2021.
GMOs are not currently banned in the UK but are tightly regulated. The current UK regulatory framework for GMOs focuses on the technologies involved in developing new plant and animal varieties, not the characteristics and consequences of those varieties.
For the UK, leaving the EU offers the opportunity to consult on the issue of gene editing. The UK launched a consultation on gene editing in January 2021. Responses from DEFRA’s consultation will be used to amend the definition of GMO and to inform policy development on gene editing legislation.
Gene editing could present an enormous opportunity to address a wide range of issues for countries in Africa, such as malnutrition, crop failure and hunger. GMOs are currently strictly regulated, and it is likely that gene-edited crops will initially fall under GMO rules in most countries. However, some countries are in the process of adopting more flexible legislation on gene-edited crops and animals. For example, lawmakers in Nigeria are considering an amendment on gene editing, and Kenya is drafting guidelines to regulate gene-edited products.
Gene-edited products are lightly regulated in Japan. They are assessed on a case-by-case basis and require notifying the government, but no safety or environmental assessments are required unless the plant contains foreign DNA.
New Zealand has adopted a precautionary approach to gene editing. Its high court has decided that the law regulating genetic engineering also covers gene-editing techniques.
Like most technologies, gene editing is not immune to risk. But feeding the world without destroying the planet is an urgent and critical challenge that will require using every possible tool in the toolbox. Gene editing has the potential to revolutionise food production and is therefore certainly not a tool to turn our back on.
To move forward, several issues need to be considered by governments and regulators to harness the benefits of gene editing whilst mitigating its risks.
Flexible, product-based regulation. How to regulate the technology in a way that allows it to safely and responsibility reach its potential is a pressing question for many governments. The pace of technology development underlines the need for flexible regulation; as new technologies keep emerging and gene-editing technology accelerates, regulation will need to be adaptable. Many experts also agree that product-based regulation – one based on the traits of the particular gene-edited plant – is preferable to process-based regulation tied to the method of genetic engineering or the particular technology.
Consumer acceptance and labelling. GMOs have previously faced backlash from consumers for their perceived “unnaturalness”, and there is a possibility that gene-edited foods could face similar issues. In Japan, a survey of about 10,000 people by the University of Tokyo found that 40 to 50 per cent of consumers did not want to eat edited crops or animal products. However, gene editing can produce food that is more nutritious, better for the environment, better for animal welfare and cheaper. And if regulated properly, its risks can be mitigated. Policymakers need to work out the best way to engage the public in debates around gene editing, manage any misconceptions and ensure consumer confidence. Labelling may also need to appropriately communicate whether products have resulted from gene editing.
Trade. Many countries import a large proportion of their food. For example, the UK imports around half the food it consumes, 30 per cent of which comes from the EU. There are concerns that a divergence of standards between countries around gene editing could act as a barrier to trade. However, it is also possible that as some countries begin to successfully implement gene-edited foods, there could be pressure from farmers in other countries to adapt domestic regulation. Nevertheless, gene editing will have to be approached in a way that does not impede trade. There may be ways for gene-edited crops to be labelled so they can be targeted to export markets. There may also be opportunities for countries to work together to harmonise regulation.
Intellectual property. High regulatory hurdles imposed on GMO crops previously created an environment where only large corporations could afford to develop genetically modified seeds. There are some concerns that intellectual property (IP) rights over key aspects of CRISPR technology could also create monopolies and impede scientific research and innovation. A question that must be addressed is whether gene-edited organisms could be amenable to patenting like classical GMOs. Whether gene-editing technologies are accessible to small firms and breeders will depend on how IP rules are framed and enforced.
What Next for the UK?
The UK government has launched a consultation on the use of gene editing to modify livestock and crops in England, which will close on 17 March 2021. The consultation focuses on stopping certain gene-edited organisms from being regulated in the same way as genetic modification, as long as they could have been produced naturally or through traditional breeding.
The UK is right to reconsider its position on gene editing now it has left the EU. Embracing technological innovation will be central to meeting net-zero targets and improving the natural environment and biodiversity. Modern gene editing technologies are also likely to be more accessible to smaller companies and ultimately farmers, in contrast to traditional genetically engineered products that can take years and cost million to produce. The UK is well placed to quickly become a leader in the industry too, with its expertise in biotechnology and plant science. However, it must focus on product-based regulation rather than process-based, and address issues around consumer trust and acceptance, trade and IP. Crucially, the UK must ensure that any traits produced through gene editing are for the public good and should consider gene editing technologies as just one tool out of a whole range of actions that need to be considered to address food and agricultural sustainability issues.
There is no single silver bullet to fixing our food system; it will require all countries to be open to innovation and new tools and technologies. Although the risk from gene editing cannot be reduced to zero, it can be significantly reduced with the right approach to policy and regulation. Gene editing can form an important part of our future food system – a system that provides healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all.