Opinion: Gene editing for fun and profit: It's a knockout!

I'm currently in Germany, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. In addition to those household names that transport us, plant and harvest our grains and wash our dishes, Germany has some very efficient agriculture, and some of the most environmentally conscious. Yet it could be way, way better.

Germany is the high citadel of the European fortress against GM crops, repelling constant incursions into Europe. German agriculture, and European agriculture for that matter, could be so much more productive and sustainable if farmers were allowed to grow GM crops, yet only small amounts of insect resistant Bt maize are grown, mostly in Spain. Somewhat ironically (hypocritically?), Europe imports over 70 per cent of its feed grain to supply the endless demand for wurst, schnitzel and pork knuckles, and nearly all of that feed grain is GM soy and maize.

GM crops continue to produce productivity gains and environmental benefits worldwide, although those benefits are mostly limited to cotton and canola in Australia. Ask most cotton farmers what they would grow if they did not have access to insect resistant Bt and herbicide tolerant varieties? For most of them the answer is "not cotton".

My plant breeding Professor taught me that one of the most foolproof and cost-effective means to introduce technological change into agriculture is the seed. The seed, like a new smart phone, is brimming with new technology. Technology that improves lives and livelihoods. Most of that technology is genetics, and the new genetic kid on the block is gene editing. You may have heard of CRISPR, the most popular form of gene editing. Have you seen headlines involving CRISPR bacon, CRISPR apples and potato CRISPRs? The first gene edited crop, a soybean that produces higher quality oleic acid has already hit the market in the US.

Science labs all over the world are tackling ever complex problems with gene editing. Most of the applications involve the "knockout" of specific genes, in a way that make the outcomes indistinguishable from any other natural mutation. Labs in the US have produced polled cattle with none of the downsides associated with the trait in some breeds. Scientists in China have produced fragrant (jasmine) versions of all 10 rice varieties they have tried. Non-browning apples and potatoes have been made. Pigs with resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome have been produced in Scotland. Chickens have been edited so that they are resistant to all known strains of bird flu, and also cannot pass the disease onto humans.

What is really exciting is that, as of October 8, 2019, gene edited plants and animals with knockouts of genes will not be regulated by the Australian government. My team is ready to plant field trials of our gene edited sorghums with larger grain and more protein. We can't wait for October, 8. 

Most of North and South America, Japan and Russia are full steam ahead with gene editing in agriculture.

Europe? They have ruled that gene edited organisms will be regulated as GM, even if they can't detect they have been gene edited.

Professor Ian Godwin is the Director of the Centre for Crop Science at QAAFI at The University of Queensland. He is the author of Good Enough to Eat? Next Generation GM Crops.

Contact: Professor Ian Godwin, Director of the Centre for Crop Science at Queensland Alliance AAFI, E. i.godwin@uq.edu.au, T. +61 7 336 51518 or T. +61 7 336 52141. 

This opinion piece Why our scientists are hanging out for October, first appeared in Farm Online on 20 May 2019

Last updated:
13 May 2020