Agricultural technology companies are working to regulate new genetic editing methods to eliminate plant and food-borne diseases, but critics are concerned about the impact on the environment and health, according to the Financial Times.
A laboratory located in the UK could be considered an inappropriate place to find scientists trying to save banana crops. But biologists are trying to counter a mycosis called “Panama,” which destroys banana plantations around the world, threatening a 36 billion dollar industry on which developing country economies depend. Over the last three decades, the disease has spread to China, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Middle East. Experts warn that it is only a matter of time before the disease reaches Latin America, where it could devastate farms that offer three-quarters of banana exports to the world.
Scientists now believe they could stop this disease by genetically engineering, which is to block certain genes or modify their functioning. Promoters of genetic publishing are not only a way of counteracting disease but also make an essential contribution to produce safer and more consistent crops to meet the needs of population growth. According to UN estimates, the global population would reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, an increase of two billion.
“It’s a revolutionary technology,” said Oir Meir, technology chief at Tropic Biosciences, based in Norwich, UK.
“Diseases can not be eliminated as in other cultures” because bananas are a monoculture focused on a single genetic clone. “This technology has been generated to accommodate these needs,” said Ofir Meir.
Launched two years ago, Tropic is one of the new innovative companies to use the genetic editing technique. Manipulation of an organism’s existing genes is different from conventional genetic modification that transfers genes across species and has met the vehement opposition of environmental organizations and consumer associations because of the possible long-term effects on the ecosystem and human health.
Promoters of the genetic publishing technique hope to avoid such criticism and strict monitoring that have stopped genetic modification mainly in the European Union, as existing genes are used, no foreign DNA is introduced into a plant. In the United States and Canada, the initial response from the authorities was that genetic publishing does not fall under the regulatory regime of genetically modified organisms.
For Tropic scientists, the short-term goal is to use genetic editing to produce longer-lasting bananas and caffeine-free caffeine. But in the next four to six years, specialists hope to sell a type of banana to withstand the TR4 mycosis.
Genetic editing, massive progress in bio-science
Genetic editing is considered by scientists to be the greatest advance in bio-science since the technology of “recombinant DNA” – which combines genetic material from multiple sources – launched the era of genetic engineering in the 1970s. Genetic editing gives scientists fast and reliable ways to produce changes in certain genes. The “Crispr-Cas9” procedure is more efficient than the previous DNA technologies, the costs are lower and there is a prospect of accelerating genetic engineering.
In the agricultural field, scientists are working on a number of genetic editing projects, including the production of wheat with a low gluten concentration and hazelnuts that do not cause allergies.
Farmers have recourse for thousands of years to selection procedures to develop crops. According to specialists, genetic editing produces the same results as conventional selection methods by which plants are crossed or DNA mutations are generated by chemical techniques, only that new technologies help increase accuracy and speed.
In July 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that genetically harvested crops should be subject to the same rules as genetically modified organisms, shattering hopes that the EU would adopt a more liberal attitude towards new technologies. However, some legal experts believe that the decision will not have such far-reaching effects.
“I think the EU Court of Justice’s decision does not make it clear that all genetically engineered organisms are by definition genetically modified organisms and that clarifications are actually needed to understand what it is,” said Piet van der Meer , a Dutch specialist in the field of biological security regulations.
The initial reaction of the United States Department of Agriculture was that genetic editing would be regulated in the same way as traditional selection techniques, as long as the results would be similar.
Consumers also have suspicions in the United States. According to a survey by the Pew Center in November 2018, about half of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are more detrimental to health than traditional foods. Critics of genetically modified products oppose new techniques due to possible effects on ecosystems and on human health.