Genome editing for smallholder farmers

A few months ago Nature Genetics published an article on “Genome-edited crops for improved food security of smallholder farmers”. It lists the applications being studied at the CGIAR consortium of agricultural research centers: “climate resilience in rice; disease resistance in banana, maize, potato, rice, wheat and yam; and nutrition improvement and consumer and environmental safety traits in cassava”. Additional traits include “brown streak virus resistance and haploid induction in cassava; nutritional quality and digestibility in bean; Striga resistance in sorghum; low phytate and high provitamin A in maize; reduced acrylamide, phytate and polyphenol oxidase in wheat; reduced aflatoxin in groundnut; delayed flour rancidity in pearl millet; reduced glycaemic index and apomixis in rice; and heat tolerance and apomixis in potato”. We emailed the CIMMYT’s scientist who leads the Genetic Resources work and is the first author of the NatGen article for an updated comment about the CGIAR’s vision of genome editing in agriculture. Kevin V. Pixley answers our questions below

 1) Which CRISPR project is particularly close to your heart among those mentioned in NatGen? 

My current favorite example is listed among the additional traits: reduced aflatoxin in groundnut. We have now begun a project on this, so if we re-wrote the paper today, this would be in the table of current genome editing projects. Aflatoxin is a huge public health problem, especially damaging to physical and mental development of young children. Aflatoxin levels on groundnut commonly exceed acceptable limits on 25% or more of groundnuts in local markets in Africa. Aflatoxin levels also close doors for farmers to participate in markets (processed foods or exports) that could improve their incomes and livelihoods. Aflatoxin is also a big problem on other crops, including maize and sorghum, so if we can develop a genome editing solution in groundnut, it might also be applicable to other crops.

2. The article discusses both regulatory and intellectual property uncertainties. What are you most concerned about? 

Both are important, but I think regulatory is the bigger of the two. IP rights can be negotiated, and in many cases, especially those less attractive to commercial markets, can be obtained at no cost. The regulatory issues, on the other hand, could be overwhelming, and could result in international trade constraints – if, for example, some countries refuse to purchase grain that might have some genome edited grains. [This is what Pixley et al. wrote in NatGen: “If the products of genome editing are instead regulated in the same way as transgenics, then genome-edited crops may not reach farms in countries that adopt such policies, or in the countries that want to export foods to those markets”]

3) Last but not least, how would you explain to an Italian reader how important the CGIAR is?

CGIAR is not for profit. CGIAR works for environmentally sustainable agriculture that achieves nutrition security and reduces poverty in the face of challenges from changing climate. CGIAR works to ensure that every farmer and consumer has the option to avail the potential benefits that science offers; access to the best agricultural science should be a right, not a privilege for those who can pay. CGIAR is a safety net for every country and society in the face of acute (like new crop diseases) and chronic (like climate change) threats to food and nutrition security. Solutions to tomorrow’s threats to Italian wheat and maize crops will very likely be found in CGIAR wheat and maize lines developed in tropical environments of Mexico, Kenya, Bangladesh, or across the dozens of countries where CGIAR works.

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