Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

Should regen ag include gene editing? AFN readers respond

July 24, 2020

In a recent article, we asked whether regenerative agriculture practitioners should embrace gene editing and other biotechnologies. Regenerative agriculture is a growing movement focused on cultivating a more collaborative relationship with nature in contrast to the plug and play approach of conventional farming. soil health, improving water quality, promoting biodiversity, integrating cropping and livestock systems, and more.

Oliver Peoples, CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, has developed a high yielding camelina variety to be used as a cover crop, one of the many tools regenerative agriculture farmers to use to improve soil quality and fertility. He argued that gene-edited crops can help the movement, but the proposition is undoubtedly controversial. Some view regenerative agriculture as a return to simpler practices grounded in a holistic view of nature while others simply fear that biotechnology brings more problems than benefits to the table.

People had a lot to say in response to our query, including a post in the Soil4Climate Facebook group that generated over 143 comments representing a variety of positions on the topic.

Here are a few comments that AFN received via email regarding the use of gene editing in regenerative agriculture:

Viktor Mittendorf Ph.D., Microbiology, has been doing research with genetically modified plants over the past 25 years:


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“I firmly believe that there shouldn’t be philosophical barriers to using any technologies in regenerative agriculture. Scalability and adoption is key to get to the critical benefits of regenerative agriculture, i.e., soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, farmer profitability, sustainability. It comes down to a case-by-case analysis of specific traits and objectives for creating GE or GM plants, e.g., a cover crop could be modified to turn it into a cash crop or to make it less weedy to enable and to encourage expanded use. 

I’ve been in Ag biotech for the past 20 years and have worked extensively on herbicide-tolerant crops like maize and soy. There are benefits (large-scale adoption of chemically-facilitated no-till in North America) and drawbacks (consolidation of the ag-industrial complex based on monocultures). As a biologist and environmentalist, I now advocate that we need to move to a much more diverse system and that herbicides should be used only on a minimal or last-resort basis, which means that I would not be in favor of creating herbicide-tolerant cover crops. For the same reasons, I would also not like to see insect-resistant cover crops. 

 

Yarin Akin, Ph.D. student of molecular biology in the Faculty of Agriculture, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel:

“My research project is a collaboration with Israeli startup company Danziger Innovations, which offers gene-editing solutions for crop breeders.

As a scientist and agtech enthusiast, I strongly believe gene-editing technologies are extremely important for breeding programs in order to move to more sustainable agriculture practices. 

I would like to refer you to GeneSprout Initiative, a recently-formed European group of young people with whom I’ve been in contact lately – we share the opinion that gene editing is the future of breeding, and if we hope to feed the growing world population while also protecting our planet ecologically, gene editing is the only way to go.

 

Shannon Pickering, market development manager at Blue River Technologies, a ‘see & spray’ robotics startup acquired by John Deere in 2017:

First of all, it is a complex question and not an easy one to answer. I have worked in biotechnology, large scale agriculture, and technology at varying levels and the answer that I would have given two years ago is much different than the answer I will give today. I have, in the last two years, learned so much about how ecosystems function, and how our modern or “conventional” methods have totally disrupted the natural ecosystems. In most cases, I see biotechnology, gene editing, and all of those tools as bandaids to a larger problem. And those bandages often come with a wide array of unintended consequences that are often not uncovered for many years after which much damage is done to human health, ecosystem health, and so on. 

So, my opinion today, knowing what I know now, is that regenerative agriculture applied correctly does not need the help of our man-made tools of death and destruction. That’s the beauty of regenerative principals, it’s about life, not about death. Most farmers wake up every day trying to figure out what they are going to kill today; weeds, insects, fungus, parasites, etc. We have a chemical or pill for everything and genetic solutions that often require the use of more chemicals. It’s crazy when you think about it. We are applying all of these toxic chemicals to the crops and soils that produce our food, and then wonder why the rate of diseases, cancers, birth defects, autism, and more continue to skyrocket. 

Regenerative agriculture applied correctly, would fix so many of our very large problems today. But, there is not a lot of money to be made by the industrial complex, and they hate that. Hence, it is a grassroots, consumer-driven movement. We have to educate consumers, farmers, everyone. My education started with reading Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil. Since then I have been obsessed with learning all I can about it. It is amazing what can happen when you allow the natural systems to work.  We don’t need more disruption of natural systems, we need to embrace the natural systems and learn to work with nature and not against it. When we battle nature, nature always wins in the end. 

 

Saransh Aggarwal, who owns an 80,000-square-foot greenhouse and has worked across real estate and agriculture in multiple roles. He holds MBA and BE degrees from Indian institutes:

I am ambivalent about embracing gene editing as such. I pretty well understand the benefits of gene editing. I understand why crops modified using Crispr are not classified as GMO. But I dither to buy the reason put forth by proponents of gene editing that it is harmless, that by modifying crops in the lab, we are just doing what nature does over thousands of years. Animals, plants, humans, insects, soil, in short, the entire ecosystem is the product of Nature’s research and development department. The entire ecosystem evolves or modifies itself in synchronization with each other. By modifying the genetic makeup of certain elements of the ecosystem bit by bit to serve our ends, we may be doing a lot of damage. This may very well be contributing to the disappearance of bees, biodiversity loss, etc., which at the present moment, we will never be able to trace back to gene editing. Moreover, if I consume GMO foods and five years down the line catch some disease, I will never be able to trace it down to GMO food. So, saying GMO is harmless may be incorrect. 

I see regenerative agriculture as an attempt to practice sustainable agriculture, which not only prevents environmental damage, not only helps us in food security but is also an attempt to restore land back to its wild form, back to natural order. So, I would say we should practice regenerative agriculture without GMOs. Let’s practice it for a few years. If farming can be made profitable, if there is sufficient yield achieved this way, let’s stick with it. If this doesn’t work out in say 10 years, then we may consider embracing gene editing. 

I am not in favor of gene editing per se, but regenerative agriculture with gene editing is definitely better than GMO-based conventional farming using chemical fertilizer, pesticide.

 

Koen Van Seijen, senior manager at Toniic, a global action community for impact investing, and host of the Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food podcast:

We as human beings always make mistakes, we need to make sure these mistakes don’t risk humanity when they happen, otherwise, you are not allowed to intervene. GMO carries that outsized risk (potentially millions of acres of crops could fail or worse hurt the health of billions of human beings, just with 1 mistake in the soy gene, etc.). For what? For very few advantages, if you really dig in the data most of the claimed advantages disappear quickly.

It seems very arrogant to think that we understand all these mechanisms in growing crops and can intervene without setting off chain reactions we can’t even begin to understand.

And for what? Because there is no alternative? Because this is the only way we can ‘feed the world’? Farmers using regenerative practices show constantly they are outperforming their GMO extractive peers.

I always wonder when was the last time these researchers and biotech entrepreneurs visited an advanced regenerative farmer. I hope a visit like that takes care of the arrogance issue very quickly and they realize there is so much we don’t know yet about growing food, fibers, and oil. 

 

Chris Parent, an independent health food store owner for 13 years who now owns a gelato manufacturing plant:

I am all for the appropriate use of gene editing.  It should be used for the betterment of humans and the planet.  If there is solely a profit motive or a restrictive patent motive then absolutely no.  Plants should not be allowed to be patented. Take greed out of the food supply and the controversy disappears.

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