The genetically engineered transgenic industry has received a “black eye” in terms of how consumers have turned against science and resisted the use of biotechnology. The hope is that, with future technologies, such as gene editing, that can be avoided.
American Seed Trade Assn. president and chief executive officer Andrew LaVigne testified Wednesday at a House Agriculture Committee that there is a need to focus on education and working on better explaining the agricultural and food value chain as well as the evolution of plant breeding methods.
LaVigne said the majority of the general public has taken only one genetics class and probably never took another one. This lack of understanding on basic plant breeding, paired with an out-of-date perception of the 1940s farmstead and its 40 acres, has left consumers confused and worried about new technologies. It’s important to get the message out and explain to consumers in simple terms the increased knowledge that is available today regarding plant physiology.
LaVigne said as new tools of plant breeding come to market, their focus needs to be on the solutions plant breeders are trying to find. Innovative new plant breeding methods, such as gene editing, allow plant scientists and breeders to precisely make specific changes to a plant’s DNA using the plant’s own internal processes.
The result can be activation of a beneficial characteristic such as drought tolerance or enhanced nutrition, deactivation of an unfavorable characteristic such as disease sensitivity or small changes to the DNA that reproduce a characteristic found within the plant’s family, like a disease-resistant characteristic found in a wild relative.
“An underlying common denominator for new innovations in plant breeding is that they can achieve the same end result that could be achieved through more traditional plant breeding methods, but in a more precise and targeted way,” LaVigne said.
In the specialty crop arena, researchers are evaluating gene editing methods to address costly diseases in crops like citrus fruits, potatoes, grapes and lettuce.
While no gene-edited products are available on the market today, this breeding method represents an exciting opportunity for agriculture, LaVigne said in his written testimony. It can be used across all crops to produce better seeds that can thrive despite new and emerging challenges — such as changing weather, plant diseases and pests — while reducing crop inputs.
In addition to farmer and environmental benefits, plant breeding innovations can bring benefits to consumers, like better-tasting produce that has a higher nutritional content.
Driscoll’s CEO Kevin Murphy said most of the technology being used in plants also is being used to address diseases in humans and animals, so once it creates tremendous value there, the perception of its use in food will change as well.
“One the public sees a greater value, the perception will change. It will take time and education,” Murphy said.
However, he said the industry should make sure communication uses terms that are easily understood.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, added that it’s important not to jump in and just assume that consumers will accept the notion that whatever you’re giving them is good for them. “Ask what their concerns are, and address those concerns early on,” he said.
In January, a rule proposed by the Obama Administration acknowledged that some applications of gene editing result in plant varieties that are essentially equivalent to varieties developed through more traditional breeding methods and treats these varieties accordingly. Therefore, gene-edited varieties would not be subject to multiyear environmental impact reviews.
LaVigne noted, “New and evolving innovations like gene editing represent exciting opportunities for agriculture. However, if policies toward breeding methods are overly burdensome, then smaller, regional companies and the public sector will likely be precluded from fully utilizing these innovations.”
He urged Congress to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food & Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to have consistent, science-based policies that promote a climate of innovation, particularly for university researchers and small companies.
Currently, biotechnology essentially has been used in only long-row crops. In order for new tools and techniques to evolve and be used within the specialty crop arena, it is important to create a policy framework that doesn’t burden producers with excess costs.
“In addition to domestic efforts, it’s important that the U.S. government also develops an international engagement strategy to communicate with our trading partners to prevent trade barriers due to non-harmonized regulations,” LaVigne noted.