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Gene editing could help future farmers do more with less


D.C. Correspondent


WASHINGTON, D.C. — New scientific techniques could help farmers advance plants and animals years faster than current science allows – but only if consumers get on board.

Gene editing was the topic of the most recent Farm Foundation Forum. Gene editing differs from genetically modified (GMO) products because gene editing does nothing to the plant or animal that years of breeding techniques couldn't accomplish. Horns on cattle can cause damage when cattle are being shipped. Currently, farmers often remove horns, but using gene editing, farmers may never have to remove another horn again.

Crops can benefit too. If a drought-resistant type of corn is identified, farmers could cross-breed varieties until the drought resistance transfers to a different type of corn. With gene editing, the gene could be manually moved from the resistant corn to another type of corn.

The technology has the potential to eliminate years of work to breed desired traits.

While the science seems sound so far, scientists and farmers will need to be transparent and quick to inform consumers.

“Any time a product doesn't have consumer acceptance, it has no value,” said farmer Randy Spronk, of Edgerton, Minn. His farm has about 200,000 hogs and row crops on 3,800 acres.

He sees gene editing as a way to reduce disease in plants and animals, increase crop production and reduce the overall environmental footprint of the farm. He is able to produce more with less than his father did by using more modern technology, science and knowledge. He thinks his son will someday be able to produce even more using even less – less land, water and seed, and fewer antibiotics.

As he spoke on the panel, Spronk said he has added hospital grade filters to his barns to try to keep out the dust – and the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). The disease can ride a dust particle for miles.

Even when a sow is immune to PRRS, the disease will mutate and she will lose her immunity. Infected pigs are then treated with antibiotics. Gene editing could make the pigs more resistant to PRRS and cause Spronk to use fewer antibiotics while increasing his productivity because he loses fewer hogs to the disease.

Most of the environmental impact of the hogs comes not from the pigs themselves, but from the crops needed to feed the pigs. With gene editing, Spronk could try to make his pigs need less feed to grow as big and healthy.

The crops themselves can also help reduce his environmental impact by producing more per acre. His father was happy to get 100 bushels of corn per acre. Spronk is disappointed if he gets 200 bushels an acre.

“It'll allow me to grow more crops, produce more pigs, using fewer resources,” he said.

The difference between his father and the current farm and the potential future farm is going to be transparency. Spronk said the changes made on the farm over the last 50 years were done without checking with society, but society decided it didn't trust certain advances – like GMOs. Being transparent will help new technology be accepted.

The acceptance needs to be not just within the U.S. consumers but on a global scale. Some South American countries have already stepped up to lead regulatory decisions, while the U.S. is still debating if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the USDA should be in charge of the regulations.

The decisions made in the U.S. market will be important, said Karen Carr, partner at Arent Fox, LLC as she discussed regulatory barriers between gene editing and production.

She said the FDA takes years to approve any new technology. As a result, many people interested in using gene editing want the USDA to be in charge – monitoring the product for safety, not the process.

The FDA has made moves to change the agency's jurisdiction from food and animal drugs to include anything that alters the genetics of an animal or plant to a new drug, she said.

The USDA argues there is no need to review pre-market because it's the same as a breeding program, Carr said.

Kevin Diehl, leader of the Global Regulatory Seed Platform at Corteva, the Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, said tomatoes are one plant that could benefit from gene editing. It took years to breed tomatoes to be transportable, but some of the taste and texture of the plant was lost. Gene editing could help put the taste and texture back into store-bought tomatoes.

Other plants that might benefit include bananas, chocolate and the citrus groves in Florida.