Gene editing improves sustainability and reduces costs – even the EU agrees

Reducing red tape through a more science-based approach on gene-edited food could save millions of dollars from the New Zealand food bill while increasing sustainability and health benefits, Dr William Rolleston, chair of the Life Sciences Network, said today.

He referenced a report, obtained by the Life Sciences Network, in which European Commission advisors recommended the EU no longer classify certain aspects of gene editing as genetic modification.

The advice recommends a notification-only regime, and no labelling requirement, for products produced using gene editing where the outcome could also be achieved using traditional breeding.

The advice calculated that for food, increased productivity and reduced costs amount to around $NZ6 billion annually.

It predicts that plant development times would be reduced and sustainability would be increased through better productivity, less fertiliser and pesticide use and reduced green-house gas emissions. The advice lists examples of up to a 16% increase in cereal productivity, up to 80% reduction in potato fungicide and in general 4% less fertiliser use and up 3.1% less green-house gas emissions.

Organic farmers reject the use of precision-bred (gene-edited) seed in their production systems but do use seeds mutated by radiation and chemicals (considered a traditional breeding method). However, as precision breeding overtakes mutagenesis, seed development options for organic farmers will be limited the report noted.

The advice also noted there would be some increase in costs for organic farmers who would need to beef up certification systems to prove provenance rather than relying on seed testing. This is because gene editing leaves no trace of the breeding method used.

However, this cost was dwarfed by savings which could be made to the food production system in general and the health benefits to consumers resulting from increased beneficial bioactive compounds such as antioxidants and reduced harmful bioactive compounds such as allergens.

The report noted that attitudes towards GM technologies in food production had shifted and were more nuanced with respondents happier to consume gene edited food which was accompanied by improved sustainability and/or health benefits.

A review of New Zealand’s rules on genetic modification has been proposed by Act and National.

Dr Rolleston says the EU report highlights the benefits which could accrue to New Zealand and consumers if we move in the same direction to adjust the rules on genetic modification.

“Cost savings in production inevitably find their way to the consumer which, in a cost-of-living crisis, means less stress on the Kiwi bank balance to feed the family,” he concluded.

“From climate change to water quality, consumers are more aware and interested in the sustainability of the food they consume. Fear of the technology to get there is waning.

“As the biotech revolution unfolds, science continues to be a powerful force to improve our lives and science remains the gold standard on which to assess safety and sustainability.”

Source:  Life Sciences Network

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog