The process of producing better food, protecting the environment and improving animal health is advancing at a seemingly breakneck pace.
These advancements are driven in part by new scientific discoveries, genetic research, data science, enhanced computational power and the availability of new systems for precision breeding like CRISPR-an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
"We use the term 'gene editing' rather loosely" in the world of science, said Bernice Slutsky, senior vice president for the American Seed Trade Association. At its core, gene editing is "plant breeding innovation," she said. "Plant breeders have always used a range of tools - a toolbox of different disciplines."
With the new techniques, they are "doing the same things that breeders have always done, but very precisely," she said.
The outcomes possible with different types of gene editing today might have seemed impossible just a few decades ago. And now, these new opportunities have strong implications for both producers of crops and livestock, as well as consumers. Consider just a few of the possibilities:
• New breeds of livestock and poultry could be genetically engineered to no longer be susceptible to widespread disease outbreaks, like pigs resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRSv), which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
• Cover crops that naturally improve soil health can be developed to grow in more diverse climates, improving environmental sustainability, water quality and animal nutrition.
• Dairy cows can be bred without horns, removing the need for cows to endure the polling (horn removal) process.
• Fruits and vegetables could be engineered to resist browning, extending their consumer appeal and reducing food waste.
Indeed, the science is moving so rapidly that some are wondering if producers, consumers and regulators will ultimately be able to understand and embrace the changes.
As history demonstrates, new advancements in breeding have almost always been controversial - even though safety or environmental risks have not been proven.
It's important to always remember that, "science and innovation always outruns law and policy. These ethical and moral questions are not new," said Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board who also owns a farm in South Dakota. "They arise every time a new technology emerges."
"I would have these same discussions when I worked at Pioneer," Even recalls about some of the Iowa-based seed company's early research aimed at improving corn yields. "When Henry Wallace pioneered the use of hybrid seed corn in the 1920s, there were all sorts of people saying, 'the sky is falling,' 'you're messing with God,' and this is 'not the natural way things should happen.' There was all this fear mongering. Now, it's viewed as one of the most successful improvements in agriculture and modern history. And people assume it's natural and they welcome it."
Kevin Folta, who chairs the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, agrees.
"It is critically important that everyone in agriculture becomes rapidly conversant in this technology, as it already has been a game changer," he notes "If these technologies are delayed because of misunderstanding, we will lose many opportunities to bring improved varieties to the field and better fruits and vegetables to consumers."
One important thing to keep in mind: These new gene-editing tools are much different than genetically modified organisms or GMOs, that activist groups have given such a bad rap.
"We're very excited by the potential for gene editing, and not only against PRRS ... a devastating disease to the industry," says veterinarian Dan Kovich, speaking for the National Pork Producers Council.
"In the future, looking to other applications for disease resistance, prevention, management - all sorts of traits - I think the potential is there (for gene editing) traits that can have an impact on animal welfare, reducing need for antibiotics," he says. "This is very different from the (genetically modified organisms) that people have talked about in the past."
With gene editing, no genes from foreign species are introduced.
"I think there are very sound reasons why the marketplace will be accepting of this technology. This is a very precise technology, working within the genome of the pig. It's not transgenics," he says. So, he says, NPPC is "just really excited about where this can go."
Gene editing is akin to cutting and pasting text within a document, explained Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, at a recent conference on gene editing.
In the 25 years of her cell biology and biochemistry career, she has "never seen science moving at the pace it is moving right now," and she sees gene editing as generating much of the stampede.
Nevertheless, gene editing will have to jump huge policy hurdles - both domestically and internationally - before results of such plant and animal breeding show up on farms, in fields and in food stores. Plant breeders must currently seek regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Animal breeders must seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which requires new animal varieties to be tested as a "drug." They are watching carefully to see how new regulations evolve and ultimately, how consumers accept these new products of precision breeding.
At the same time, a number of scientists, consumer and food safety advocates want to see the U.S. and world governments lump gene editing in with transgenic genetic alterations and regulate it as just another type of genetically modified organism. That would almost surely ensure years of testing and approval for each product - dramatically running up the costs to produce these innovative new gene-edited products commercially.
Editor's note: Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com. Agri-Pulse's Ed Maixner contributed to this report.