Frank Terhorst, Head of Crop Strategy & Sustainability, Crop Science

Genome editing: An important building block for the future of agriculture

Hand inserts molecule into DNA

To date, European regulation of genetic engineering in plant breeding is based on the state of knowledge and discussion of the 1990s. In the meantime, however, new genomic techniques have been introduced. These methods, generally summarized under the term "genome editing", mimic naturally occurring processes, precisely modify predetermined parts of the genome and do not add any genes foreign to the species. Therefore, an adaptation of the legislation is urgently needed. The EU Commission has now presented a proposal on regulation of these methods. This is a step in the right direction, even if it remains to be worked out that detailed regulations do not thwart the actual objective.

The new technologies are an important building block for overcoming the immense challenges we face, which do not allow any further postponement. The dilemma: We humans are consuming too many resources and contributing to global warming, but at the same time we have to feed a growing population that is still threatened by hunger in many areas - currently 800 million people. In addition, new pandemics are emerging. The fall armyworm, for example, which has spread to more than 100 countries since 2016, is causing global losses of up to 17.7 million metric tons a year in corn alone, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Enough to feed tens of millions of people.

Therefore, we need to produce more food. But it is not an option to increase land usage and resource consumption - on the contrary, we need to produce "more with less". Currently, we use about 50 percent of the world's habitable land for agriculture. This proportion must be significantly reduced, because this is the only way we can create space for CO2 sinks such as forests and swamps, as well as refuges for animals and plants. At the same time, the potential for CO2 sequestration on agricultural land must also be leveraged and biodiversity increased.

Bayer's goal is thus to enable regenerative agriculture that preserves and builds soils while using fewer inputs and still increasing productivity and food security. Is genome editing the ultimate solution for all of these challenges? No. We need innovations that work together: data-driven crop information, crop protection products that have less impact on the environment, biological solutions - and also: the best plants. They must be more resistant to environmental stress, pests and plant diseases, allow good yields and at the same time convince consumers, for example through higher nutritional value or better taste. To accomplish these big tasks, we need more accurate and efficient breeding methods.

The new techniques have significant potential as they are more precise, offer more diverse solutions, and make breeding processes more efficient. This is an opportunity for small breeders and even public research institutions in countries with small research budgets to take advantage of this technology. We are already seeing this in Africa, for example, where local varieties and crops that are important for the basic needs of the population are being improved by local researchers and breeders. These breeding methods are indeed a democratic technology, which is how representatives from all areas of agriculture now see it. Moreover, the traits of the plants produced by these technologies are not based on the introduction of new gene constructs, but on mutations, just as they could be produced by conventional breeding or in nature - except that with genome editing it is more precise, less expensive, and faster. Today, it can take up to twelve years to adapt a wheat variety to climatic changes. With genome editing, this could be done more quickly.

One example of new plant varieties already in existence is CoverCress™, a novel cover crop developed with genome editing from field pennycress that benefits regenerative agriculture. Included into winter crop rotations between corn and soybeans, it does not compete with food production and reduces nitrogen loss, stores carbon in the soil and improves soil health. Unlike other cover crops, it also provides oil for biofuel production, offering a financial incentive for farmers to implement this sustainable practice.

Until now, such varieties have not been accessible for European farmers. The European Commission's proposal can open the door to these technologies finally being used on a broad basis in Europe, by academia as well as by large and small breeding companies. This is the only way Europe can keep pace internationally because what we have only discussed so far has already been successfully practiced in other parts of the world. And at Bayer, we want to be transparent: Seeds that have been produced with the help of genome editing will also be labeled accordingly for farmers.

Frank Terhorst
Frank Terhorst
Head of Crop Strategy & Sustainability, Crop Science
4 min read