Cutting plant DNA only compounds problems
Volkert Engelsman and Michel Haring
The Crispr-Cas technique is not a miracle solution to make plants stronger. On the contrary, its damage will be great, fear Volkert Engelsman, entrepreneur and founder of Eosta, and Michel Haring, professor of plant physiology at the University of Amsterdam.
Crispr-Cas is going to save the world, if we were to believe the round-table discussion in the Lower House on 31st January. Such a beautiful technique, which allows you to cut into the DNA of plants, solves all problems: hunger, drought, emissions, diseases and pests. But the sector of organic farming was not invited to the conversation. The organic sector, which should account for a quarter of EU agriculture by 2030, has reservations when it comes to Crispr-Cas. There are three objections: the destructive revenue model, the false promise of a simple approach, and the reduced freedom of choice for consumers and farmers.
It was not that it is not a beautiful technique. At the department of plant physiology at the University of Amsterdam, we work a lot with Crispr-Cas, which allows you to trim the DNA of plants by the 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 take the One Health view that human, animal and natural health are intrinsically linked. Biodiversity plays a central role in this. Plant researchers are therefore moving away from thinking in individual genes. Good plant breeders work in the context of soil, roots, insects, microbiome, fungal networks and weather conditions.
The idea that Crispr-Cas as a panacea solves problems represents a return to the 1990s, when people made the same - unfulfilled - promises around 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 has a destructive business model attached to it. It will not improve 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 tons. Per crop developed, you have to pay royalties on each seed 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. Rather two varieties of maize on the market than 20. Building in herbicide resistance (so you can spray down weeds) becomes an attractive business model with Crispr. Regardless, the moribund agrobiodiversity is further eroded.
Disconnected from the ecosystem
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 get mixed with Crispr-Cas variants 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 should not be affected. European consumers want to be able to choose not to have to eat GM food. How does 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 is in robust systems, not in loose genes.
Source: Trouw Opinie
18 February 2023