By Pierre Petelle, President & CEO, CropLife Canada
The past few years have seen considerable public discourse about the challenges facing our planet. While the COVID-19 pandemic garnered most of the attention, concerns around food security are increasing and we are faced with an important question: how will we feed a growing global population amidst a warming climate? Technology and innovation are essential parts of the equation. One set of tools in particular, plant breeding innovations, presents incredible opportunities to enhance the sustainability and resiliency of agricultural production around the world.
Scientific tools with significant impact
Humans have been breeding plants for more than 10,000 years, selecting varieties of crops that performed well or had desirable characteristics (e.g. tasted better, larger kernels, etc.). Traditional plant breeding results in a random crossing of genetic material between the two parent plants in hopes that some of the offspring will be successful, however there is little control over the result. Over time, the processes for making tweaks to improve crops have improved and diversified with new science and technology.
There are now a number of plant breeding innovations that scientists and plant breeders can access. The most commonly discussed type is genetic engineering, which produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic engineering is the process of very precisely moving favourable genes from one organism to another. Regulatory agencies and other groups around the world, including Health Canada, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization all consider crops developed through genetic modification to be as safe as traditional crops.
Now there is a newer plant breeding technology called gene editing, which includes techniques like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). CRISPR allows researchers to cut or edit out certain pieces of a plant’s own DNA in order to add, remove or enhance a desired characteristic. It holds such potential that its developers were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Both genetic modification and gene editing present incredible opportunities to benefit people and the planet. Farmers in Canada first started using GMOs in 1996. Since then, these farmers have benefited from growing GMOs such as corn, canola and soybeans that are resistant to insects and herbicides. Consequently, farmers can keep their plants healthier and improve the yield of their crops. These GMO crops have reduced the need for tillage as a form of weed control on tens of millions of acres of land, resulting in improved soil quality, significantly increased carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from machinery.
Increasing resiliency in unpredictable conditions
As the real effects of climate change create challenging growing conditions, plant breeding innovations are driving the development of more resilient crops. Scientists have developed varieties of plants that are better able to survive and thrive under flood or drought, or to resist disease. Such developments help to provide a more predictable harvest to feed a growing population. Recently in Canada, we’ve seen devastating droughts, floods and extreme weather events that have significantly impacted farmers’ ability to grow food. Outside of Canada’s borders, we see the same kinds of challenges that make agricultural production more unpredictable than ever. While weather is a variable outside of anyone’s control, what we do have some control over is embracing innovations that lead to heartier crops, helping protect our food supply in the face of challenging weather conditions.
Improved nutrition for a growing population
According to the United Nations, almost 9% of the world’s population (approximately 690 million people) are experiencing food insecurity (FAO, 2022). That number could swell to 840 million by 2030 if current trends continue. Technologies like GMOs and gene editing will be crucial in moving toward the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.
Numerous examples of plants developed for improved nutrition already exist. Genetic modification created the vitamin A-enhanced golden rice and omega-3 soybeans. Scientists are using gene editing to develop heart-healthy tomatoes, high-fibre wheat and nutrient-dense lettuce. The precision with which these nutrition-related traits can be harnessed presents opportunities to address the widespread global issue of malnutrition. But perhaps most exciting is that tools like gene editing can accomplish the research and development for these crops in a fraction of the time needed for traditional breeding. Given that our population is expected to increase by another 2 billion people by 2050, there is no time to waste.
It is also important to note that GMOs and gene-edited crops can play a role in reducing food waste. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all the food produced globally is lost or wasted each year, contributing to 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plant breeding innovations can help decrease those numbers, and also reduce the cost implications along the supply chain. For example, potatoes that are resistant to browning and bruising can lessen the estimated 400 million pounds of potatoes that are thrown away every year.
Enabling a path forward for innovation
The agriculture and food system in Canada is innovative, productive and responsive, and access to tools like genetic modification and gene editing can help our country play a leading role in a bright future for our planet. But in order to truly unleash the potential of these kinds of innovations, we need to ensure Canada’s regulatory system continues its robust protection for human and environmental health, while also relying on science to deliver policies that enable this kind of much needed innovation to come to the market in Canada. With global food security at the forefront like never before, we need to be embracing these technologies now to deliver important benefits for tomorrow.