One of the biggest challenges historically to introducing technology in food and agriculture has been a lack of “felt need” by society – a belief that we have what we need, and new technology in food production offers little societal benefit.
For decades, the U.S. has enjoyed an abundance of safe, affordable food. Shelves were full and supply chains were reliable. While farmers embrace technology to produce food more efficiently and sustainably, innovation has been viewed by the public as more of a “nice to have” than a necessity. Something that benefits farmers but is of little relevance to consumers.
But our food supply is facing unprecedented pressure. And for the first time since World War II, food security is once again national security.
We’re seeing a confluence of events threatening consistent access to food with greater challenges ahead, including skyrocketing fuel and food prices and fertilizer shortages, all worsened by the continued war in Ukraine, weather extremes and the continued ripple effects of a global pandemic.
There’s a growing sense of urgency by an increasingly anxious public that feels helpless as they watch events unfold and fear for the future. From producers and food suppliers to manufacturers and consumers, there’s a stark recognition that we need new tools to effectively address these challenges.
With the world’s population predicted to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, the effects of global food insecurity will only increase. We need solutions and we need them now.
The Promise of Gene Editing
That’s where gene editing comes in. It’s one of today’s most promising innovations, with tremendous potential to benefit society, farming and food production by making precise changes in the genome of plants, microbes and animals. Through a simple edit that turns a gene on or off, gene editing can make plants more resilient to climate change, animals resistant to disease and illness and microbes that help plants capture nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Not only is it being used to address human diseases and conditions like cancer, sickle cell and COVID-19, the technology can help farmers keep pace with the growing demand for healthier, more abundant and affordable food, while using less water, land and other resources.
In addition to the benefits listed above, gene editing has the potential to improve nutrition and the safety and quality of food, and reduce food waste.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit’s Scientific Group recognized gene editing as a key tool that can help transform global food systems to end hunger by 2030.
A Framework for Responsible Use
Now is time to double down on efforts to earn trust in gene editing and other new technology in agriculture. The ability of these technologies to achieve their full potential hinges on public support.
With any technology, legislation and regulation lag scientific innovation. Democratic processes are intentionally deliberative and, in turn, slow. Throw in complexities of U.S. regulation where USDA oversees plants and FDA regulates animals, and the asynchronous regulations across countries and geographies. It contributes to confusion and leaves us wondering who’s watching the store? Who’s there to make sure gene editing and the resulting products are coming to market responsibly?
A voluntary market-driven framework that assures the technology is used responsibly can help build public support. Trust will be earned when those researching and using gene editing participate in an open, public dialogue about the shared benefits of gene editing and their commitment to responsible use.
That’s why CFI launched the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in 2016. The Coalition includes representatives from food companies, academic institutions, civil society, technology developers, farmers and related associations. The Coalition recently released its Framework for Responsible Use, which is quickly gaining momentum. The Framework has seven principles and related best practices that demonstrate an organization’s commitment to using gene editing responsibly to advance the interests of agriculture, the food system and society.
Companies, businesses and academic or government organizations that use gene editing or its outputs in food or agriculture are invited to join the Coalition and adopt the Framework.
It’s rewarding to not only see the diversity of organizations who’ve made the Coalition and Framework possible, but to see the Framework endorsed by several high-profile companies and organizations: the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), Cargill, Corteva, Costco Wholesale, FMI – The Food industry Association, Genus PLC, PepsiCo and Tropic Biosciences. And we’re just getting started.
These are organizations that understand the importance of having a platform in place to demonstrate that their practices regarding gene editing are worthy of public trust.
Gene editing will only be successful if it’s adopted and embraced not just by developers and by farmers, but by the food companies who will put it to use as they develop and take their products to market and, ultimately, by consumers who will buy food produced through gene editing.
I encourage those interested in joining us on this important journey to learn more about the Coalition and Framework at geneediting.foodintegrity.org. Gene editing and other new agriculture technology are critical tools that can help us address our food supply’s most daunting challenges. By committing to build trust in these technologies, we can all contribute to the solutions we need for a sustainable food system.