Organic farming with gene editing: An oxymoron or a tool for sustainable agriculture?

Publication date: 10/10/2018

A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.

Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.

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Towards resilience through systems-based plant breeding. A review

Publication date: 22/08/2018

How the growing world population can feed itself is a crucial, multi-dimensional problem that goes beyond sustainable development. Crop production will be affected by many changes in its climatic, agronomic, economic, and societal contexts. Therefore, breeders are challenged to produce cultivars that strengthen both ecological and societal resilience by striving for six international sustainability targets: food security, safety and quality; food and seed sovereignty; social justice; agrobiodiversity; ecosystem services; and climate robustness.

Against this background, we review the state of the art in plant breeding by distinguishing four paradigmatic orientations that currently co-exist: community-based breeding, ecosystem-based breeding, trait-based breeding, and corporate-based breeding, analyzing differences among these orientations. Our main findings are: (1) all four orientations have significant value but none alone will achieve all six sustainability targets; (2) therefore, an overarching approach is needed: “systems-based breeding,” an orientation with the potential to synergize the strengths of the ways of thinking in the current paradigmatic orientations; (3) achieving that requires specific knowledge development and integration, a multitude of suitable breeding strategies and tools, and entrepreneurship, but also a change in attitude based on corporate responsibility, circular economy and true-cost accounting, and fair and green policies.

We conclude that systems-based breeding can create strong interactions between all system components. While seeds are part of the common good and the basis of agrobiodiversity, a diversity in breeding approaches, based on different entrepreneurial approaches, can also be considered part of the required agrobiodiversity. To enable systems-based breeding to play a major role in creating sustainable agriculture, a shared sense of urgency is needed to realize the required changes in breeding approaches, institutions, regulations and protocols. Based on this concept of systems-based breeding, there are opportunities for breeders to play an active role in the development of an ecologically and societally resilient, sustainable agriculture.

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What is the available evidence for the application of genome editing as a new tool for plant trait modification and the potential occurrence of associated off-target effects: a systematic map protocol

Publication date: 16/08/2018

Plant breeding is a developing process and breeding methods have continuously evolved over time. In recent years, genome editing techniques such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR associated proteins (CRISPR/Cas), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), zinc-finger nucleases (ZFN), meganucleases (MN) and oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM) enabled a precise modification of DNA sequences in plants. Genome editing has already been applied in a wide range of plant species due to its simplicity, time saving and cost-effective application compared to earlier breeding techniques including classical mutagenesis. Although genome editing techniques induce much less unintended modifications in the genome (off-target effects) compared to classical mutagenesis techniques, off-target effects are a prominent point of criticism as they might cause genomic instability, cytotoxicity and cell death.

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Is the new European ruling on GM techniques ‘anti-science’?

Publication date: 06/08/2018

There has been much commotion in the media over the past week, following the ruling by the European Court of Justice over how to interpret EU laws bearing on the regulation of GM crops.

The ruling clarifies an anomaly, in that new plant varieties developed by longstanding non-GM gene-altering techniques of ‘mutagenesis‘ (using chemical reactions or ionising radiation) are now interpreted “in principle” to be classifiable as GMOs. The new GM techniques of ‘gene editing‘, on the other hand, are interpreted by the ECJ to be included in existing GM regulations.

In a complex case, the Court’s rationale is not without some ambiguity or persisting questions.

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Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification

Publication date: 14/06/2018

Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments — such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity — as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement.

However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes.

The authors address this knowledge gap by synthesizing research that analyses how agricultural intensification affects both ecosystem services and human well-being in low- and middle-income countries.

Overall, they find that agricultural intensification is rarely found to lead to simultaneous positive ecosystem service and well-being outcomes. This is particularly the case when ecosystem services other than food provisioning are taken into consideration.

The researchers found. for example, that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies.

Another  finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.

The authors also found that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.

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A critical juncture for synthetic biology

Publication date: 12/06/2018

The development of new technologies and their applications often have to navigate regulatory limitations and public attitudes, expectations or resistance – the trajectories of genetically modified crops in the Europe or the success of in vitro fertilization after initial resistance demonstrate how public attitudes and regulation can determine if a technology succeeds or fails.

Academic scientists and companies working on new technologies increasingly must consider these factors and mitigate real and perceived risks of the technology so as to avoid overreaching regulation and public resistance that could threaten innovation. In this context, social science takes an important role by gauging public attitudes about if and how the emergence of new technologies stokes fears and raises hopes.

This article illustrates how the natural sciences and social sciences interacted in the emerging fields of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, specifically the timing and rise of social science research and commentary on the potential impact and risks of these emerging technologies.

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Risk in synthetic biology – views from the lab

Publication date: 01/06/2018

The concepts of risk and responsibility are often linked to discussions of emerging scientific fields, but studies into how these concepts are connected to research practices have been narrowly focused on risks for humans and the environment.

To broaden these concepts, “Responsible Research and Innovation” (RRI), a democratic governance framework, aims to enable societal discussions beyond traditional risk assessment and mitigation. Proponents of RRI argue that these discussions should not be confined to the direct risks of the research itself, but also include wider issues, such as “the purposes and motivations of research” [1]. Yet, it is not only RRI protagonists who want to broaden this conversation.

We found that scientists also ponder non‐technical risks, such as the impact of institutional demands on career, health and social relationships, or economic pressures from the incentive system in which much of research in biology is now embedded. These findings challenge the present formulation of RRI as a science governance framework and lead us to argue that “responsible” research and innovation systems can only succeed if these broader concerns are taken as seriously as the risk of laboratory accident or inadvertent release.

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Who’s talking about non-human Genome Editing? Mapping public discussion in the UK

Publication date: 31/05/2018

This report reviews public discussion about Genome Editing in non-human organisms. Its primary goal is to provide a preliminary baseline regarding the kinds of public discussion about, and interactions with, a development in biotechnology with societal significance.

Previous research and experience governing emerging technologies has shown that they need to be developed in ways that are ethical, safe and accountable, that deliver meaningful public value and that foster public trust in democratic institutions. Past experience in Britain suggests public deliberation and discourse has a vital role to play in developing effective governance arrangements and the nation has developed significant institutional expertise in developing such arrangements.

To date, attention has focused largely on the use of Genome Editing in humans. For instance, in 2015 an international summit produced a consensus statement on human Genome Editing. This was followed by a consensus study by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine into the ethics and governance of human Genome Editing, published in 2017. However, Genome Editing techniques span virtually all domains of bioscience and biotechnology that rely on altering genetic sequences. In today’s landscape, this means their envisaged uses in both scientific research, as tools, and in developing new technologies or commercially-valuable processes are widespread. It is therefore vital that non-human applications are considered.

In the UK, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics recently concluded an initial study on the ethics of Genome Editing and is undertaking follow up studies on human Genome Editing and Genome Editing in livestock. The Wellcome Trust is currently funding public engagement on Genome Editing as applied to human health and medicine through the Genome Editing Public Engagement Synergy with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. This review complements the above work by providing baseline information about public discussion of, and public engagement with, Genome Editing in non-human contexts.

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Soil pollution – a hidden reality

Publication date: 02/05/2018

Soil pollution poses a worrisome threat to agricultural productivity, food safety, and human health, but far too little is known about the scale and severity of that threat,

Concerns about soil pollution are growing in every region. Recently, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-3) adopted a resolution calling for accelerated actions and collaboration to address and manage soil pollution. This consensus, achieved by more than 170 countries, is a clear sign of the global relevance of soil pollution and of the willingness of these countries to develop concrete solutions to address the causes and impacts of this major threat.

The main anthropogenic sources of soil pollution are the chemicals used in or produced as byproducts of industrial activities, domestic, livestock and municipal wastes (including wastewater), agrochemicals, and petroleum-derived products. These chemicals are released to the environment accidentally, for example from oil spills or leaching from landfills, or intentionally, as is the case with the use of fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation with untreated wastewater, or land application of sewage sludge. Soil pollution also results from atmospheric deposition from smelting, transportation, spray drift from pesticide applications and incomplete combustion of many substances as well as radionuclide deposition from atmospheric weapons testing and nuclear accidents. New concerns are being raised about emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, hormones and toxins, among others, and biological pollutants, such as micropollutants in soils, which include bacteria and viruses.

This book aims to summarise the state of the art of soil pollution, and to identify the main pollutants and their sources affecting human health and the environment, paying special attention to those pollutants that are present in agricultural systems and that reach humans through the food chain. It concludes with some case studies of the best available techniques for assessing and remediating contaminated soils.


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A global observatory for gene editing

Publication date: 21/03/2018

In August 2017, scientists reported that they had used the gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9 to correct a mutation in viable human embryos. The work is just one of countless applications of the technique, with which scientists hope to alter plants, animals and humans.

The value of most applications of the technology has barely been exposed to public review. Unless these editorial aspirations are more inclusively debated, well-intentioned research could move humanity closer to a future it has not assented to and might not want.

Over the past three years, leading scientists have called for global deliberation on the possible effects of gene editing on the human future. In our view, the discussions that have taken place fall far short of the expansive, cosmopolitan conversation that is needed.

Free enquiry, the lifeblood of science, does not mean untrammelled freedom to do anything. Society’s unwritten contract with science guarantees scientific autonomy in exchange for a research enterprise that is in the service of, and calibrated to, society’s diverse conceptions of the good. As the dark histories of eugenics and abusive research on human subjects remind us, it is at our peril that we leave the human future to be adjudicated in biotechnology’s own “ecclesiastical courts”.

It is time to invite in voices and concerns that are currently inaudible to those in centres of biological innovation, and to draw on the full richness of humanity’s moral imagination. An international, interdisciplinary observatory would be an important step in this direction.

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