What You Need to Know about Gene-Editing

scientist

For the last few years, Green America has been working to educate consumers of the long-term implications and harm posed by genetic engineering (GE). Together we have made great strides in pushing companies to shift away from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and towards organics.

But the biotechnology industry is at it again, this time with gene-edited crops. Gene-editing is an offshoot of genetic engineering, using more recently developed technology, such as CRISPR. This technology allows scientists to target specific traits and either remove or rearrange them.

Here's why this is concerning, and why it is definitely not the answer to fixing our conventional agriculture system.

Twenty years ago GE technology was promoted as the golden ticket that would increase yields, decrease pesticide usage, and all together promote a more sustainable and profitable system of agriculture. So far it has failed to live up to these promises. Gene-editing is being promoted in the same way.

Whether or not you believe the science of genetic engineering itself has merit, the system of agriculture that it promotes is extremely unsustainable and continues to be one of the largest contributors to climate change. With genetic engineering we have seen the mass propagation of monocropping and the overuse of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The mass use of gene-editing technology will further our dependence on these toxic chemicals. So far gene-editing companies are focused first on developing herbicide-resistant varieties, with some attention to drought. This is a similar development trajectory taken by those behind GE crops, and after 20 years we have yet to see any improvements in drought tolerance, water-use efficiency, or energy-use efficiency. Additionally, the crops engineered for herbicide-resistance resulted in the unfortunate and unintended creation of herbicide-resistant superbugs and superweeds.

Waiting to act to lessen the impacts of agriculture on climate change is not an option. In order to mitigate conventional agriculture’s negative impacts we need to be moving away from the idea of magical fixes. There are a number of changes that can be made right away that will make a huge difference, such as crop rotation, using composted material (manure and food waste), and cover cropping. All of these are a much better solution than waiting to see how gene-editing technology plays out over the next ten years.

There is still a great deal that scientists still do not understand when it comes to genomes and how they interact with one another, which raises serious concerns for the unintended consequences of gene-editing. So far the federal government has failed to see any sort of distinction between this technology and conventional breeding techniques and at this point has decided to allow it to go unregulated.

This technology is not limited to the editing of plant DNA. Gene-editing has huge ethical and moral implications as scientists around the world are working to see how this technique can be used on animals and humans. Scientists in China recently bred gene-edited monkeys and have made the first alterations to human embryos. Consumers and many scientists are calling for a ban on this technology until further research can be done and the ethical implications are weighed.

In reality, gene-editing is genetic engineering 2.0. If left unchecked it will sneak its way onto every grocery store shelf. In this area, a more precautionary approach is a must.

Gene-editing using CRISPR technology is already on the horizon for wheat, one of the world’s most important food crops. Sign the petition to stop the development of GE wheat, including by methods derived from gene-editing.