Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna, codeveloper of CRISPR, joined Ag-West Bio’s President and CEO Dr. Karen Churchill on September 21st for a fireside chat on the opportunities and challenges of using this technology in agriculture. Many potential solutions for the control of pests, and improvement of crops to make them more resistant to climate change were discussed. CRISPR can very well be the game changer Canadian agriculture needs to keep it competitive for decades to come, and better equip it to deal with climate change. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as introducing the technique and reaping the rewards. The institutional and regulatory environment around CRISPR needs to be fined tuned in order for the technology to its fullest potential.
Working with Dr. Peter W.B. Phillips, Dr. Simona Lubieniechi, and Crystal Chan, I recently explored the technical, social, and legal issues around the use and application of CRISPR in public Canadian crop breeding (policy brief forthcoming). Legally, CRISPR ownership is in limbo in Canada. Three parties have filed patents claiming ownership of CRISPR, and debate to assign ownership has not even begun. On the technical side, I discovered that CRISPR has already been used by some Canadian public crop breeders for proof-of-concept research. However, it is not a viable tool for breeding practices because of the biological complexity of some crop species. For now, CRISPR will remain one of the many tools for plant scientists and breeders use to understand a myriad of biological processes.
Canadian crop breeders also explained that they were unsure about how consumers, who vote with their wallets, would ultimately react to CRISPR derived crops or food products given the experience with GM crops. As Dr. Doudna mentioned, genetic mutations occur naturally around us. The common ways in which CRISPR is applied to crop breeding do not result in a transgenic crop. However, in Europe, CRISPR derived crops and food products are deemed as transgenic. In Canada, Canadian consumers are still unsure, if not outright against products of genetic modification in their food. Crop breeders therefore are hesitant in using a technology that may not be accepted by the consumers.
So, how can we promote the use of CRISPR in public crop breeding program in Canada? Our research offers three concrete suggestions from the public policy perspective:
- First, the Intellectual property and regulatory issues surrounding CRISPR need to be clarified. Doing so could serve as precedent for other advanced biotechnologies currently being applied, and those to come.
- Second, since understanding gene functions is a necessary step towards the optimal CRISPR application, funding can and probably should be directed towards basic biology research.
- Lastly, it would be beneficial to support research that evaluate Canadian consumer perceptions towards the technology and willingness to accept of CRISPR products as it becomes more widely adopted. The research results would indirectly benefit Canadian public crop breeders. More importantly, the results will allow agricultural biotechnology advocates to go beyond the conventional “this technology is backed by science and is safe” message and address specific doubts and concern.
Jennifer Doudna’s virtual visit to Saskatchewan was inspiring in many ways. The possibilities her discovery has for agriculture are many, far reaching, and needed by some crop breeders. New, more efficient ways to control pests, improve crops and livestock can all be developed by using CRISPR. However, if we want this to happen, we need to fine tune the environment to remove adoption barrier for the crop breeders. While we should continue to educate and inform about the safety and benefits of agricultural biotechnology, perhaps the focus should be on dissociating CRISPR from the existing GMO debates.
This research was conducted as part of the ‘Enhancing the Value of Lentil Variation for Ecosystem Survival (EVOLVES)' project funded by Genome Canada and managed by Genome Prairie. We are grateful for the matching financial support from the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, Western Grains Research Foundation, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the University of Saskatchewan. We also acknowledge support from BASF, AGT Foods, Global Institute for Food Security, Palacky University, and Polytechnical University of Marche.
Diego Macall obtained his undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering from the Catholic University of El Salvador. He specialized in coffee production and processing, but also volunteered regularly to help implement rural development projects in impoverished villages and towns throughout the entire country. Seeing up close the socio-economic realities that afflicted a great segment of the Salvadoran population, inspired him to pursue graduate studies in agricultural policy. In 2014, Diego was accepted into the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics master’s programme. Upon obtaining his degree, Diego worked briefly as a market analyst in the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service Office in São Paulo, Brazil. Diego returned to USASK in 2017 as Dr. Stuart Smyth’s research assistant, since then, he has co-authored numerous papers and blogs about agricultural biotechnology. Since October 2020, he has been assisting Dr. Peter WB Phillips with certain components of the EVOLVES project.