The obsession with deregulating gene editing will harm farmers, according to an organic entrepreneur and a professor of plant physiology
The CRISPR/Cas gene editing technique is not a panacea to make plants stronger. On the contrary, it will do great damage, warn Volkert Engelsman, entrepreneur and founder of organic and fair trade produce supplier Eosta, and Michel Haring, professor of plant physiology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), in an excellent article in the mainstream Dutch newspaper Trouw. Engelsman and Haring describe the technique as "biotech neocolonialism".
Here's an English version of their article, translated from the Dutch with the help of Deepl Translate and slightly edited for English style:
"CRISPR/Cas is going to save the world, if we were to believe the 31 January round-table discussion in the (Dutch Parliament) House of Representatives. This fancy little technique, which allows you to cut into the DNA of plants, solves all problems: Hunger, drought, emissions to the environment, diseases and pests. But the organic farming sector was not invited to join the conversation. The organic sector, which should account for a quarter of EU agriculture by 2030, has reservations about CRISPR/Cas. There are three objections: The destructive revenue model, the false promise of a simplistic approach, and the reduced freedom of choice for consumers and farmers.
"Not that it isn't a beautiful technique. At the department of plant physiology at the UvA, we work a lot with CRISPR/Cas, which allows you to trim the DNA of plants gene by gene. Yet there are good reasons not to simplify the authorisation procedures for this technique in Europe, as the agrochemical lobby wants.
"Because it is precisely now that the insight is breaking through that most problems in agriculture, from soil degradation and biodiversity loss to human health problems, have been caused by one-sided and reductionist thinking. This led to monocultures and agrochemicals. Wageningen University and RIVM (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) take the One Health view that the health of humans, animals and nature are intrinsically linked. Biodiversity plays a central role in this. Plant researchers are therefore moving away from thinking in terms of individual genes. Good plant breeders work in the context of soil, roots, insects, microbiome, fungal networks and weather conditions.
"The idea that CRISPR/Cas will be a panacea for problems represents a return to the 1990s, when people made the same – unfulfilled – promises around [older-style] genetic modification. If you insert a fungus resistance gene into a crop today, that fungus will have adapted in two years. Robust breeding requires a systems approach. The government is therefore supporting the scientific project Crop-XR for robust resistance, with 43 million euros.
"CRISPR/Cas has a destructive business model attached to it. It will not improve things if we make the rest of the world even more dependent on patent holders in the West. A licence for applying CRISPR/Cas can cost a lot. Per crop developed, you have to pay royalties on each seed that is sold. It leads to power concentration and an explosion of patents on life. With money trickling away from farmers and consumers in poor countries, and converging on investment funds in Europe and the US. It is biotech neo-colonialism.
"The economic gains are in bulk crops. It’s thought preferable to have two varieties of maize on the market rather than 20. Building in herbicide resistance (so you can spray down weeds) becomes an attractive business model with CRISPR. Despite the fact that the moribund agrobiodiversity is further degraded.
"The third objection is the disappearance of choice for consumers, farmers and breeders. In organic farming, CRISPR/Cas is not allowed. Organic farmers must have certainty that their crops cannot be mixed with CRISPR/Cas varieties via outcrossing, because then they lose their specific position. Organic breeders also no longer know where they stand. The entrepreneurial freedom of organic breeders and farmers must not be impacted. European consumers want to be able to choose not to have to eat GM food. How will the government guarantee that?
"The last 50 years of breeding have not done much good to plant genetics: We disconnected the plant from the ecosystem and unlearned to interact with soil life. That led to chemical solutions and ecological destruction. We need to return to an integrated approach. Sustainable agriculture depends on robust systems, not isolated genes."