De­signer genes: Is tech­nol­ogy good for agri­cul­ture?

The Glengarry News - - The Opinion Page -

By Cam Dahl, Pres­i­dent of Ce­re­als Canada It is hard to be­lieve, but the ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing tech­nol­ogy that gave us her­bi­cide re­sis­tant canola, corn and soy­beans is yes­ter­day’s sci­ence. The re­com­bi­nant DNA tech­niques that gave us th­ese new farm­ing op­tions have ben­e­fited agri­cul­ture – through in­creased yield, re­duced in­put costs and re­duc­tion of tillage and sum­mer fal­low. The tech­nol­ogy has also helped im­prove Cana­dian agri­cul­ture’s sus­tain­abil­ity pic­ture, by re­duc­ing fuel use, im­prov­ing soil or­ganic mat­ter and de­creas­ing ero­sion. But not every­one in so­ci­ety sees th­ese ben­e­fits and the re­sis­tance to “GMO” in by some con­sumers in the mar­ket place con­tin­ues.

So what about the next step in tech­nol­ogy? I am a com­plete sci­ence nerd, so I get ex­cited when I read about new gene edit­ing tech­niques like CRISPRCas9. But not every­one shares this ex­cite­ment. Should we em­brace the ad­vances in ge­netic sci­ence or stick to the older tra­di­tional meth­ods of plant breed­ing?

For me, the an­swer is an en­thu­si­as­tic “yes, but”. First to the “yes” part of the an­swer. Un­like rDNA meth­ods, the new gene edit­ing tech­niques do not in­tro­duce DNA from out­side of the plant. A new wheat va­ri­ety de­rived us­ing the emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy will still be 100% wheat DNA. Gene edit­ing will rapidly speed the plant breed­ing process. It can take ten to 15 years (or more) to breed a new va­ri­ety us­ing tra­di­tional plant breed­ing meth­ods. With the new pro­cesses, this will be cut back to five to seven years or even less.

Gene edit­ing tech­nol­ogy will al­low sci­en­tists to de­liver drought tol­er­ant crops, salt tol­er­ant crops, fusar­ium re­sis­tant crops, re­sis­tance to rust, spe­cific nu­tri­tional pro­files and a likely few ben­e­fi­cial traits that we have not even con­tem­plated. The tech­nol­ogy is pre­cise, only chang­ing what needs to be ad­justed leav­ing the ben­e­fi­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics in place. And the new breed­ing pro­grams will de­liver th­ese traits in half the time, or less, of reg­u­lar plant breed­ing. Be­ing on the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­ogy is a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for Cana­dian farm­ers. We can’t af­ford to turn our back on ad­vance­ments in sci­ence.

The new tech­nol­ogy will help agri­cul­ture adapt to a chang­ing cli­mate. This is how we will de­liver new pro­duc­tive seeds to small land­hold­ers around the world who are look­ing for a path out of poverty. This is how we will feed a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. The world re­ally is on the edge of an­other green rev­o­lu­tion. How could one be any­thing but ex­cited?

Now we get to the “but” part of the an­swer. Many con­sumers are wary of new sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially when that sci­ence is ap­plied to food. We can’t blaze the new tech­nol­ogy trail and ig­nore the con­sum­ing public. We need to ac­knowl­edge the con­cerns and bring con­sumers on the path with us. Ac­com­plish­ing this goal is just as im­por­tant as de­liv­er­ing new traits and va­ri­eties.

There are two tracks we as an in­dus­try need to take si­mul­ta­ne­ously. First, we need sci­en­tists and farm­ers to come out of the fields and labs to ex­plain why the new tech­nol­ogy is good for con­sumers and our planet. We know how the sci­ence will ben­e­fit agri­cul­ture, but how will the new tech­niques ben­e­fit some­one in down­town Toronto with no con­nec­tion to the farm? We need to de­liver real an­swers to this ques­tion be­fore the ac­tivists con­vince the public that we are putting Franken­stein’s mon­ster onto gro­cery shelves.

But our ac­tions should not be con­fined to try­ing to con­vince the con­sumers. There is a reg­u­la­tory el­e­ment as well. And here the Gov­ern­ment of Canada must be an ac­tive part­ner. Canada must lead the de­vel­op­ment of clear, sci­ence-based reg­u­la­tions that in­clude the new gene edit­ing tech­niques. Reg­u­la­tions based on fact and re­search, not fear, will fa­cil­i­tate the adop­tion of the new tech­nol­ogy.

Se­cond, we need the Gov­ern­ment of Canada to ac­tively en­gage reg­u­la­tory agen­cies in key mar­kets to fol­low the Cana­dian ex­am­ple and im­ple­ment a reg­u­la­tory regime that al­lows rather than pre­vents the use of the new plant breed­ing tech­niques. This is work that needs to be ac­com­plished be­fore new va­ri­eties are planted. Work­ing to­wards en­abling reg­u­la­tions around the world should have a pri­or­ity that is on par with ne­go­ti­at­ing the elim­i­na­tion of tar­iffs and re­stric­tive quo­tas.

The new tech­nol­ogy is a po­ten­tial boon, not just for farm­ers but for con­sumers and a hun­gry world. But agri­cul­ture has work to do with con­sumers and gov­ern­ments around the globe if the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the sci­ence are to be re­al­ized. cil­lors and po­lit­i­cal ad­vi­sors. Th­ese are ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ties for OFA mem­bers to speak up and start a con­ver­sa­tion about our agri-food in­dus­try.

This sum­mer OFA is fo­cus­ing our mes­sages on three is­sues – phos­pho­rus re­duc­tion in the Great Lakes and sur­round­ing wa­ter­ways, the Chang­ing Work­places Re­view and ru­ral eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

On­tario farms and agri­cul­tural prac­tices have been iden­ti­fied as a po­ten­tial source of phos­pho­rus in our wa­ter­ways. High lev­els of phos­pho­rus re­sults in al­gae grow­ing faster than the eco-sys­tem can han­dle, lead­ing to de­creased wa­ter qual­ity and al­gal blooms in Lake Erie. On­tario farm­ers con­tinue to mod­ify farm­ing prac­tices to re­duce phos­pho­rus en­ter­ing our wa­ter­ways. OFA is work­ing with gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try part­ners and ex­perts to en­sure On­tario has a solid plan and proper sup­port for farm­ers to take mean­ing­ful and sus­tain­able mea­sures to re­duce phos­pho­rus en­ter­ing the Great Lakes and On­tario wa­ter­ways.

BET­TER LATER THAN NEVER: Last week­end’s dry and warm tem­per­a­tures en­abled farm­ers to re­sume har­vest­ing hay.

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