The following “Open Letter” has been sent to the CEO of Cibus, a company doing cutting-edge R+D using CRISPR and other gene-editing and gene-silencing technologies (referred to as CRISPR et al. in the letter below).
The letter responds to a recent Scientific American Network blog by the CEO of Cibus, Dr. Peter Beetham. His hope, and Cibus’s mission, is to assure that these new tools will shape the Future of Food by changing the art and science of plant breeding.
See the box at the bottom of the page for more on Cibus and its R+D priorities.
Peter Beetham, “GMOs Are Not Agriculture’s Future — Biotech Is,” Scientific American Network Blog, September 5, 2018.
September 14, 2018
Open Letter To:
Dr. Peter Beetham, CEO
San Diego, CA 92121
Your Scientific American Blog “GMOs are Not Agriculture’s Future — Biotech Is” (September 5, 2018) is provocative. It has, I hope, some potential to advance the already highly polarized debate over gene-editing techniques (CRISPR et al.). I write in the hope of adding a little nudge in a hopefully positive direction.
Some people engaged in the debate over CRISPR and other next-gene gene editing methods likely bypassed your blog after reading its title. Why?
Because the premise stated in the title is both controversial and arguably inaccurate. I know all the reasons you and others hope that, and assert that, gene-edited crops are not GMOs. However, if CRISPR et al. advocates persist in making this point, the debate will likely remain mired.
Your statement that first-generation GMOs, and their reliance on moving foreign DNA into GE crops, were a “catastrophic mistake” is striking. I cannot recall anyone in the biotech industry stating this point so bluntly. In fact, it seems to me that you overstate and simplify the case.
While generation-one GE crops have led to many problems, and have been undertested and mismanaged, it’s a stretch to say they have been a “catastrophic mistake.” In addition, the problems with first-gen GE crops extend well beyond their reliance on foreign DNA, and include complex regulatory sequences with unintended effects, failure to control/target gene expression, instability, and gene flow, to name a few.
Good luck getting others in the industry to acknowledge that the consequences and safety of first-generation GE crops were not adequately understood and poorly managed, let alone a “catastrophic mistake.” I agree, though, that a fresh look and sober assessment of lessons learned from first-generation, herbicide-resistant and Bt-transgenic crops is a necessary step in finding a better way to “hatch” CRISPR et al. crops, but only if lessons learned are acted upon.
My recent paper on “lessons learned” in 1990-1996 efforts by EPA and the industry to manage the risk of resistance to glyphosate and Bt in first-generation GE crops was written in the hope of moving the policy debate forward in one key area: What to do with current and emerging GE crops when they pose a heightened risk of resistance (e.g., Extendimax and DuoEnlist, and indeed all GE crops engineered to resist multiple herbicides)?
A July 18 Hygeia Analytics blog highlights the highly consequential, contemporary, resistance-related policy challenges arising from first- and second-generation GE crops, and likely also certain GE crops for decades to come.
You write in your blog “It is clear to me agriculture needs to adapt.” Most everyone agrees with this point. But there are deep divisions on two critical questions:
- Why does agriculture need to adapt, what are the “real” problems and fundamental drivers that require adaptation?
- How should agricultural production systems and technology change, to better “adapt” to changing realities?
Without general agreement on #1, there is little chance for movement toward consensus on needed changes in laws, policies, and public and private sector priorities. Welcome to the status quo.
After calling out the need for ag to adapt, you write that the “only question” is how to bring CRISPR et al. technologies on the market “…in a way that does not repeat the mistakes of the GMO era.”
The implication is clear and obviously a huge stretch — embracing CRISPR et al., and the genetic changes made possible via gene-editing, is the only way, or the best way, to solve what ails agriculture.
In making this assertion, you are replicating another of the systemic mistakes made by industry advocates as first-generation GE crop technologies came onto the market — overpromising what changes in crop genetics can, by themselves, accomplish.
Your deep faith in the notion that crop and animal genetics can cure everything that ails agriculture ignores, or at least seems to dismiss, the fact that the most affordable and sustainable way to address many agricultural production problems (e.g., resistance, declining soil health, nutrient overload in surface waters) is to change the components of, or practices within farming systems that give rise to the problems in the first place.
I wish you luck in bringing CRISPR et al. technologies onto the market without the stigma, and added delay and costs, that now seem inevitable. The path to the market, and widespread adoption, is likely to get rockier unless, and until those claiming that CRISPR et al. is ready for prime time accept that it actually is not. There is much work to do in the lab, in the policy arena, and in gaining acceptance among consumers.
Glad to share your response as a guest blog on Hygeia, if you so request.
Benbrook Consulting Services
Cibus has specialized in advanced plant breeding technologies since 2001, with a focus on non-transgenic approaches through it’s proprietary Rapid Trait Development System.
This technique allows for site-specific gene editing via traditional mutagenesis, resulting in non-transgenic crops. The first commercially available crop produced in this way is sulfonylurea-resistant SU Canola, which was launched earlier this year in the US and Canada.
This is just the first of a line of non-GMO crops the company is developing. In fact, they announced early this summer that investors contributed $70 million to support research and development on upcoming flax, rice and potato non-transgenic varieties.