Globally, most of the poor and undernourished people live in rural areas of developing countries, where they depend on agriculture as a source of food, income, and employment. International data show a clear association between low agricultural productivity and high rates of undernourishment. Therefore, sustained improvement in agricultural productivity is central to socioeconomic development. In a perspective paper published in Science, researchers argue that with careful deployment and scientifically informed regulation, new plant breeding technologies (NPBTs) such as genome editing will be able to contribute substantially to global food security.

Previously, conventional plant breeding through cross- and self-pollination strategies played a major role in improving agricultural productivity. Moreover, the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops by smallholder farmers has led to higher yields, lower pesticide use, poverty reduction, and improved nutrition. Nevertheless, so far only a few developing and emerging economies—such as China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Africa—have embraced GM crops.

Global opposition to transgenic GM crops explains why there are currently limited applications of these crops. European attitudes and policy approaches are particularly important in this respect. Given their longstanding trade connections with Europe, African and Asian nations also logically fear that adoption of transgenic crops could lead to the loss of export opportunities to Europe, where opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is now deeply ingrained.

However, NPBTs may allay fears associated with GM crops. For example, recent advances in genome editing allow the alteration of endogenous genes to improve traits in crops without transferring transgenes across species boundaries. CRISPR-Cas has emerged as one of the foremost systems with which to edit the crop genome, with rapidly increasing agricultural applications in major cereals such as rice, wheat, and maize, and other food security crops such as banana and cassava. Because of its low cost, genome editing can also be used to improve orphan crops such as local fruits, vegetables, and staple crops that can play an important role for healthy diets. The use of foreign DNA in transgenic GM crops is the main reason for their heavy regulation. Hence, the absence of transgenes in genome-edited crops could lower the costs of the regulatory procedures and thus speed up innovation, increase competition in the seed industry, and make improved seeds more affordable for farmers in developing countries.

The researchers push for a renewed effort and strategy to facilitate the use and adoption of genome-edited crops and other NPBTs that have much potential to contribute to sustainable development. “Learning lessons from the past, the strategy should be based on transparent communication, training of researchers and other stakeholders in the innovation system, and efficient, informed regulation,” wrote the researchers.


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