By Pat Thomas, co-founder, Beyond GM

Are there are limits to what plant breeding can (or should) achieve? Or, as some proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture believe, are we limited only by our imaginations and how strict or liberal our regulations are?

Not so long ago, in the days when people could still meet face to face, these were amongst the questions my colleagues and I set out to explore in a unique world café in Brussels.

Co-hosted by A Bigger Conversation and IFOAM-EU, the day-long meeting brought together plant breeders working in a variety of different ways including those using genetic engineering (now generally called genome editing), organic, biodynamic and conventional methods.

On the table were questions such as: 

  • How much do we understand each other when we talk about concepts like ’natural’ and ‘sustainable’ in plant breeding? 
  • How do we decide what acceptable trade-offs and acceptable risks are?  
  • In a rapidly changing world, which is highly vulnerable to climate change, how can plant breeding help build resilience? 
  • And what about the end users? Do we need citizens to have a more active role in deciding what we grow, develop in the lab and, ultimately, eat?

Given the chasm between, for example, the worldviews that drive genome editing and organic plant breeding, you would expect a day of strife and disagreement. 

We were certainly braced for that possibility and, yes, there was disagreement – especially around the European Court of Justice’s 2018 decision that new genome editing technologies should be regulated in the way as older style GMOs. Many biotech breeders felt this ruling not only penalised their businesses but failed to recognise that the technology has moved on, and continued to do so, and that the urgent need to improve sustainability and climate change resilience in plant breeding meant that genome editing should be considered a viable tool – even in organic.

GMOs in organic? It seems inconceivable to many and yet this is a live discussion and an idea that has gained some support in the organic sector. Natural Products Global has offered a platform to help us open out this discussion with panel discussions at Natural and Organic Products Europe 2019 and at the Nordic Organic Food Fair 2019 which revealed a high audience acceptance (around a third of the audience!) of the idea. The percentage was even higher – around half the audience polled – at our session at our recent panel at Biofach 2020. 

What is emerging strongly in the genome editing debate is the idea of ‘using all the tools in the toolbox’. Anybody who thinks that not discussing it will make the issue go away could be in for a surprise in a few years’ time. 

In our discussions in Brussels, there were varying levels of agreement that genome editing is “one tool in the toolbox”. No-one argued, however, that it was THE tool.

Much depends on one’s vision of the future of food production. If that vision involves greater industrialisation then genome editing in all its forms may be inevitable. Not just in plant breeding and field grown crops, but in hydroponics/vertical farming and in synthetic biology and the production of foods from genetically engineered microorganisms. This is the kind of ‘food without farmers’ promoted by environmental journalist George Monbiot.

But amidst the disagreements at our world café there were also fragile points of agreement.

  • There was acceptance by participants who support genome editing of the viability and value of the organic approach to plant breeding;
  • Organic and other ‘alternative’ breeders likewise, acknowledged the value of genomic tools in lab-based research and in genome mapping in helping breeders select for different traits; 
  • Few argued that genome editing should have no regulation – the urgent question on the table is what form that regulation should take; 
  • There was also a refreshing willingness to accept that public perceptions of genome editing are not purely ‘emotional’ or ‘irrational’ but are shaped by a complex range of factors and values which are relevant to the debate.

There was also agreement that there are limits to what plant breeding can achieve in terms of improving biodiversity and achieving sustainability. Other factors such as how we farm are likely to be more influential in the long run.

Amongst our participants it was clear that there was a willingness to work together but almost no plan for how those with sometimes deeply conflicting vales and approaches might do that. Notions of ‘plurality’ and ‘co-existence’ are not just philosophical or rhetorical.

In the UK, the EU and elsewhere, new ‘green deals’ which ostensibly put ‘sustainability’ at their heart, are largely predicated on the more widespread use of new biotechnologies which, promise to improve yields, welfare, biodiversity, sustainability and profits in the farming and food technology sectors.

But there are real world, in-the-field practicalities of co-existence – perhaps especially between organic and genetically engineered crops – that have never been worked out to anybody’s satisfaction during the whole long history of genetic engineering in food and farming. 

The question is, do we – breeders, farmers, brands, retailers, civil society – tackle these questions head on or just sit around wait for answers to be imposed upon us? 

I urge anyone interested in the future of food and farming to read and consider the issues raised (from both sides of the fence) in the report, The Boundaries of Plant Breeding, which follows a lively  day-long discussion across several key areas. A shorter executive summary which gives a snapshot of emerging themes and conclusions from the day, is also available. 

You can also join the conversation about genome editing in organic by taking part in this short poll (only 3 questions!). Be part of the debate.