Could gene-edited plants provide better food security? And what are the risks and potential consequences presented by this process? Helen Doran (Senior Specialist, Futures, Natural England) explores these questions in the latest instalment to our ‘On the horizon’ series.

‘Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to threats such as climate change and disease’ – to quote Kenneth Miller, a US-based science writer. That technology is gene editing and CRISPR (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic) repeats is the best-known tool for this purpose. Sometimes referred to as ‘molecular scissors’, CRISPR can take a specific piece in a DNA sequence and allow it to be replaced or removed. Rapid genome sequencing was first identified as a conservation issue in the 2012 horizon scan of emerging issues for global conservation and recent advances now pose the question of how policymakers and regulators respond – should they encourage it to feed a growing world population or ban it due to perceived risks? The US and EU have responded very differently to the question.

In March 2018, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it had no plans to regulate gene editing of plants that otherwise could be developed via traditional breeding techniques. By contrast, the European Court of Justice stated in July 2018, that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same stringent regulations that apply to genetically modified organisms. What this might mean for the UK’s look to leave the EU is uncertain. We have a unique opportunity to modernise our food regulations but we should tread carefully in order to remain compliant with EU standards, or risk alienating its and our own skeptical domestic consumer markets.

Despite the EU ruling, the absence of US regulation is likely to catalyse innovation in plant gene editing. Most food crops are still at the proof-of-concept stage but products that could hit supermarket shelves first include rice, potatoes, mushrooms, soybean oil and tomatoes. For example, a team in China has developed a variety of rice that yielded 25-31% more grain than non-edited rice in field tests. It may also be used to transform  previously unused species into new crops via targeted changes to plant toxicity, fruit size, nutritional content or growth conditions.

The implications for biodiversity will depend on the specifics of the gene-edited plants and associated production systems. For example, genetic and technological advances, which hold the prospect of effective nitrogen fixation, more efficient photosynthesis and synthetic animal feeds – as well as using big data to better-match crops to soil types – could lead to a fundamental reallocation of land. More efficient food and feed production delivering greater yields could shift land use towards delivering benefits like biodiversity, clean water and recreation. However, there will also be those concerned about unintended consequences such as reducing diversity or off-target mutations, already a concern in human health. Expect an ethical as well as regulatory debate.

A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019 is available to read in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Read more from our ‘On the horizon’ series here:

Introduction  by Bill Sutherland and Nancy Ockendon

Climate change and the capacity of Antarctic benthos to store carbon by Nathalie Pettorelli

Deforestation expansion of plantations and infrastructure threaten Indo-Malay island species by Nafeesa Esmail and Alice Hughes

Options for cultivating rice as climate changes and salinity increases by Erica Fleishman

Plastic alternatives – the ecological impact is not always clear by Becky LeAnstey

Mercury rising by Colleen Seymour