Gene editing in primary industries – Science Media Centre gathers expert reaction

New Zealand has historically had a conservative approach to gene editing, but embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk, a new Royal Society Te Apārangi report says.

This discussion paper – the third in a series from the Society’s Gene Editing in Aotearoa project – says gene editing could bring a range of benefits for our agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, mānuka, ryegrass, wilding pines, and dairy cows.

The society is seeking public feedback on the paper and holding three workshops around the country this month to discuss the findings.

The Science Media Centre collected the following commentary from scientists.

Dr Prof Peter Dearden, Bio-Protection Research Centre, Director of Genomics Aotearoa, and Professor of Genetics at University of Otago:

“The panel has looked at a number of scenarios in primary production in New Zealand in which gene editing could be used. These scenarios are not really futuristic, but ideas that could be implemented relatively quickly. The report clearly shows that the biggest barriers to using these technologies are regulatory ones and that the regulatory regimen is complex and often contradictory.

“The scenarios show the benefits that gene editing could bring in each scenario, clearly indicating the benefits we would miss out on if we do not engage with this technology, and develop the skills to carry out effective gene editing in New Zealand. Without skills and research in gene editing we will not be able to determine risk vs benefits, nor have the ability to understand and assess technologies coming from overseas.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing, but am not an author of this work.

Dr Tony Conner, Science Group Leader, AgResearch:

“It is timely to have a public discussion about the merits or otherwise of gene editing, and potential applications and opportunities for New Zealand as a food-producing nation. The genetic technologies are developing at such a pace internationally that it’s important we don’t get left behind, and as a society that we understand what gene editing is, and what it is not.

“The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favour of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm. It puts the onus on us as scientists to communicate what the evidence actually shows.

“My colleagues at AgResearch have already demonstrated what is possible with gene editing in both the plant and animal space. My colleagues in animal science have proven that they can use CRISPR technology to remove a major allergen from a cow’s milk, and this shows one path to enhancing our food supply and human health (this example is captured in the Royal Society discussion paper).

“In the plant space, a lot has already been achieved over the decades in selective breeding to make our pastures perform better. This has meant production from our farms, that is the backbone of the NZ economy, has flourished. Billions of dollars have been saved through the targeted use of endophytes (a type of fungi that lives within grasses) to deter pasture pests, but there is also an issue with some endophytes being harmful to the livestock. Gene editing has the potential to remove that harm to livestock, while maintaining the huge benefits the endophytes offer.

“My hope is that this discussion paper from the Royal Society will not only provoke discussion about gene editing, but also help lift the general understanding of this technology, with the evidence at the heart of the discussion.”

Conflict of interest statement: Tony is the Vice President (Biological and Life Sciences) at Royal Society Te Apārangi, but he was not involved in producing the report.

Professor Andy Allan, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland:

“Gene editing of plants should be treated in the same way as any breeding method. If the resulting plant is measurably better for the environment or the consumer then that is the only hurdle it should meet.

“At present, these plants are categorised as ‘genetically modified’ (GM) by NZ law, even though the DNA changes made are exactly the same as those created by sunlight, and a lot less than those made by traditional breeding. The simple message should be: these plants now contain new DNA.

“Fast flowering of apple was used as one example in the Royal Society’s discussion document. Why use this technique? Because with changing climate new cultivars have to be constantly developed. Otherwise, we lose our production. Growing what cultivars we have under slightly warmer conditions won’t be an option. In addition, new plant pathogens arrive or evolve in our areas of production. The best way to protect against these events is good breeding, and fast breeding should be one of these tools.

“I hope that the RSNZ’s discussion paper on the use of gene editing in the primary industries will be a great start to an adult conversation on benefit versus risk for this breeding method.”

No conflict of interest statement received.

Professor Richard Newcomb, Chief Scientist at Plant & Food Research:

“Scientists at Plant & Food Research are excited by gene editing technology because it allows incredibly precise changes to the genetic makeup of an organism without necessarily introducing any foreign DNA.

“As our climate, environment and population changes, gene editing could help us to adapt plants through pinpoint changes to key genes which control desirable traits. Breeding plants with the right combinations of genetic characteristics to resist pests, be more productive or to taste better takes decades today, but could be achieved in much less time with gene editing – and with more predictable outcomes.

“Plant & Food Research is here to help ensure a smart, green future for New Zealand. To achieve that future we need plants that grow more, healthier food with less chemical and water inputs on less land. Those plants also need to be resilient to climate change and able to create foods which global consumers will love and pay a premium price for. If we can learn how to apply gene editing in the right crops it offers the promise of breeding those new plant cultivars faster and with a higher chance of success.

“While gene editing offers lots of promise, its successful use to breed better plants needs to be proven by more science not only to understand the benefits but the potential risks associated with the technology.

“As such we believe it is timely to consider having a national discussion here on gene editing in New Zealand for farming, food, pest control and conservation. Plant & Food Research would like to be part of this national conversation.”

Dr James Millner, Senior Lecturer, School of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University:

“Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of mānuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of mānuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar.

“The Ministry for Primary Industry, Massey University and industry partners have recently completed a Primary Growth Partnership programme to lift investment and production of high-value mānuka honey; thousands of hectares have been planted, mostly on steep erosion-prone hill country. This will result in benefits for the environment and allow landowners to generate income from land which is generally unproductive.

“There have been a number of examples of self-introducing pests and diseases (blown in on the wind) which have or potentially could affect mānuka. Myrtle rust is the latest example; prior to that there have been a number of scale insects which also arrived from Australia. Leptospermum scoparium is present in Australia so there is considerable potential for more pest and disease arrivals and a risk that one or more of these new organisms could threaten mānuka.

“If there is little natural resistance in existing populations we may not be able to do anything about this because extensive use of pesticides, for example, is not likely to be feasible due to cost and environmental issues. If gene editing was able to provide opportunities for combating existing or future incursions then it should be evaluated.”

Conflict of interest statement: None declared.

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer, Scion:

“I am pleased to see the Royal Society document inviting discussion on the potential for gene editing to significantly advance New Zealand’s primary industries and solve potential problems with diseased taonga species.

“Gene editing is a very precise approach to modifying a genome, more precise than anything else we can do, and can result in exactly the same result as normal mutations that can occur naturally but very rarely. New Zealand already accepts much less precise approaches to modifying plants such as radiation mutagenesis.

“Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials. We are also researching other opportunities to modify conifers such as their productivity and tree characteristics.

“We believe this is very important for New Zealand as trees take a very long time to breed desired characteristics, even using the latest breeding techniques. Plantation trees in New Zealand are really just long-lived crops, and others are progressing modifying trees to achieve goals faster. An example is the reintroduction of the American Chestnut following a devastating disease outbreak.

“New Zealand does not have to rely on FSC certification, but can also use New Zealand’s PEFC accreditation (used by more of the world’s forests than FSC) which is currently more accepting of modern technologies.

“An added advantage to creating sterile trees is a boost to reaching New Zealand’s zero carbon by 2050 and low emissions economy targets. Faster-growing sterile trees take more carbon out of the atmosphere in any unit of time because they use energy to grow rather than to reproduce. Achieving sterile Douglas fir and other plantation conifers will also benefit the one billion trees planting initiative of the current government by preventing unmanaged spread of wilding trees.

“Our global interactions tell us that other than the EU (but not some individual countries within the EU), most countries are deciding that gene editing without adding any new DNA will not be regulated. New Zealand needs to have a well-informed debate on the implications of this for our economy and our future.”

Conflict of interest statement: Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials.

Dr Phillip Wilcox, statistician, University of Otago:

“Gene editing of conifers to prevent or accelerate reproduction has both benefits and risks.

“On the benefits side, preventing the formation of cones and/or pollen has environmental and financial benefits from dramatically reduced weedy-ness. In theory, this means the trees could reallocate their energy to producing wood over reproduction, potentially improving productivity and therefore profitability. It is likely to reduce the costs of wilding control and improve the acceptability of conifers for some local authorities. In addition, there are likely health benefits for those allergic to pine pollen.

“Accelerating flowering under controlled conditions could also shorten the breeding cycle of commercially important conifers, further enhancing profitability.

“There are risks, however. For example, the prospect of artificially-modified sterile pine or Douglas Fir forests does not sit comfortably with some New Zealanders, who may perceive such forests as unnatural and inconsistent with New Zealand’s clean, green image.

“Widespread use of such sterile conifers could exacerbate some of the other issues associated with commercial forestry, including perceived loss of biodiversity and in some cases, poor environmental management.

“There are still substantive technical challenges required to get us to the point where we can actually produce these artificially-modified conifers, which could impact reputations of those promoting such an approach if the research does not deliver promised outcomes. A balanced, careful and considered approach is needed, which this report can make a valuable contribution to.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing. I collaborate with the Radiata Pine Breeding Company in the areas of breeding strategy and applied genomics, and collaborate with researchers from Plant and Food Research Ltd and University of Waikato regarding cultural perspectives on gene editing.

Source:  Science Media Centre

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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