In a move that will no doubt annoy organic farming hardliners, a group of scientists, ethical experts and legal experts from Denmark have proposed that genome editing be used to develop more efficient and affordable organic produce.
In a review published today in the journal Trends in Plant Science, the group made the case for genome editing to “rewild” food crops that have become ungrowable without pesticides, making them produce higher yields and remain resilient to disease and poor weather, while grown under organic conditions.
As contradictory a concept as it might sound, the group argue that the practice would be acceptable under the EU’s legal definition of organic produce, as it would simply speed up a process that could be achieved through selective long-term breeding.
“In current legislations, a plant is considered natural if it’s mutated by chemicals and radiation – that happens in nature,” explained senior author Michael Palmgren, a plant and environmental scientist at the University of Copenhagen.
“If you can make a precise mutation that has the same effect and you don’t introduce new material, then this type of plant should also be an exception.”
Rewilding is a term that is very much on the rise, and for good reason. After decades of breeding to increase yields, many of the fruits and vegetables found in stores and supermarkets are unable to grow without pesticides, as they would be too vulnerable to pests and poor weather.
“The corn we eat does not live in nature anymore,” said Palmgren. “It’s like how we turned a wolf into a poodle.
“During breeding you select for specific characteristics, but then you risk losing others because you’re not selecting for them. If you wanted to strengthen a dog, you would breed it with a wolf.”
At present, however, no rewilded crops have actually been created by adding specific traits, although there is plenty of evidence to show that it would be possible, but some have been created by removing one.
A notable example is a 2014 study that saw bread wheat become more resistant to mildew by removing DNA from three distinct areas, resulting in the crop’s offspring carrying on this resistance.
The same effect could have been achieved by a breeding programme, so it blurs the lines between what we think of as genetic engineering and more traditional crop management.
While the group feel genome editing could have great benefits for organic foods, and believe crops developed using the technology would not be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they are conscious of the importance of making consumers feel informed about the technology.
In particular, they need to avoid what happened when a new crop of GMOs appeared in the 1990s, where a moral panic about ‘Frankenstein foods’ quickly spread in the media.
“Originally, when the whole idea of transgenic plants came up – that you can take a gene from a bacteria or a fish and put it in a corn – we as plant scientists were excited about the technology and didn’t understand the objections,” said Palmgren.
“This is a new program, and I’ve learned to have discussions and debates with people in other fields from the beginning so that we do not repeat past mistakes that affected public opinion.”