We can’t save tomorrow’s world by going backwards.
The UK’s decision to engage with gene-editing technologies in crops should be a welcome, forward looking decision for farmers and consumers. The government’s Gene Technology Bill introduced to Parliament in May promises the UK to continue being a hub of agricultural innovation and to continue producing safe, affordable, nutritious food.
We’re moving into the future of farming with renewed confidence and more precise practice.
This Bill has taken time coming, and it couldn’t happen at a better moment. Our environment faces tremendous pressure, there’s food supply uncertainty and prices continue to rise. We were reminded during and post-pandemic how vulnerable the food supply is and the ongoing Ukraine war has refocused this again. We need sustainable solutions that embrace safe technologies, helping farmers to produce more, using less, and improving everyone’s food supply and security.
On my farm in the south of England, we grow barley, wheat, canola and protein crops. We’re always looking for ways to produce healthy and affordable food with fewer inputs, such as water, fertilizer, and crop-protection products. Farmers can feed the world and look after the planet but we need to be allowed to do it. Sensibly and appropriately regulated technology is good for our farm, good for consumers and good for the planet.
To realize these ambitious goals, we need tools such as gene editing (GE).
The science behind GE is simple. It allows us to take tried and tested conventional breeding and speed it up. GE harnesses the power of biotechnology to re-design the genes within crops helping them resist disease or tolerate drought, for example. (For a good introduction on how GE works, watch this video from the Royal Society.)
I feel a better description for the process could be “gene re-designing.” The government refers to GE as “precision breeding,” which is a good and accurate description. GE is fundamentally different from genetic modification which has a controversial history in Europe. This is important for us all to understand. Whereas genetic modification moves genes from one species to another, GE relies on the genes that are already in an organism.
If consumers confuse GE foods with genetically modified organisms (GMO), we may find ourselves with the same issues we confronted a generation ago, when genetically modified crops were new and many people rejected them due to a lack of understanding and fear of the science. Although genetic modification is a proven technology and widely accepted around the world, with thousands of acres grown, the term GMO remains a ‘no go area’ for some in the UK and the EU.
We should avoid this from happening again by using a public-education campaign to overcome the anti-farming activists whose agenda is to restrict technology in agriculture and to promote fear in this new science.
One of their demands will be special food labeling. When there’s no fire, we shouldn’t raise the alarm—the Gene Technology Bill has avoided this with the decision to not label products. GE food is no different than the food we eat today, and should be treated that same way.
The Gene Technology Bill also adopted an incremental approach that starts with crops. The first generation of GE benefits will involve improvements in the yield and quality of crops. As a wheat farmer, I hope we’ll have seeds that resist rust and septoria, a pair of fungal diseases that damage what would be otherwise healthy plants. If we can use the science of GE to fight these plant diseases, we’ll grow more food on less land and keep prices affordable.
Consumers have gotten used to available and affordable food. Agricultural technology isn’t on supermarket shoppers minds and their weekly grocery lists. It may be though, if GE can create consumer-facing traits such as vitamin enhancements for improved nutrition. It might also lead to more choice, for example, for people with wheat allergies.
Once we’ve established the benefits of GE in crops, perhaps the science can move on to livestock, as we breed farm animals that live longer and healthier lives that require fewer medications.
Consumers then might not just tolerate GE food but appreciate its advantages and actively find it and buy it. In a paradox to GMOs, food labels may eventually advertise their gene-edited contents — not because of labeling regulations imposed by the government, but because of a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Tomorrow’s food and farming can be better by using today’s technology. Farmers can feed the world today and tomorrow, if we’re allowed to.