Climate change requires precision cultivation
Central Europe is becoming hotter and drier due to climate change. As a result, harmful organisms have been able to establish themselves in our region, which had been previously too cold for them. Agriculture is facing a challenge. We need robust new crop varieties to protect harvests against invasive pests. Innovative methods, such as precision cultivation using gene editing, can help plant breeding keep pace with climate change.
Wednesday, October 27, 2021
The rise in average global temperatures is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and persistent droughts, but also heavy rain and floods. For farmers, these weather conditions often mean crop losses. Persistent heat causes crops like wheat to mature too early, while too much moisture can lead to fungal diseases. However, rising temperatures lead to more than just volatile weather conditions. Harmful organisms from warmer regions are suddenly able to thrive in places that used to be too cold. Since 1960, insect pests have been moving north at an average of 2.7 kilometers per year.
Rising temperatures cause massive crop losses
With an increase in average temperatures, pests have not only spread, but also become more biologically active. In other words, they remain active for a longer period of time and reproduce more vigorously. A model study at the University of Washington predicts that crop losses caused by insect pests will increase by 46 percent, assuming a 2-degree temperature increase. The relevant figures for corn and rice are 31 and 19 percent, respectively. Global crop losses would be enormous. Higher temperatures also facilitate the spread of crop diseases caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria. In addition, changes in environmental conditions encourage the development of mutants.
Megatrend: Climate change
Time is short
Plant protection products will not be available soon enough to combat every pest and every disease. Moreover, in many cases – for example when the harmful organism is located in the core – pesticides should not be used. What we need most of all in order to maintain productivity are robust new plant varieties that are resistant to extreme weather and new kinds of pests. The problem is that traditional breeding methods take a long time. In most cases, ten years or more go by between the first crossbreeding and the time when a new variety is ready for the market. If plant breeding is to keep pace with climate change, we need new and innovative processes. One such process is precision breeding using molecular biology.
Farmers need a complete set of tools
With the CRISPR/Cas9 gene scissors, it is possible to “cut” a crop’s genetic material more precisely than ever before. Certain genes that are detrimental to the plant can be “switched off.” The major advantage of this technology: The breeding of new varieties can be accomplished much more quickly. Since genetic material can be modified very precisely, it is no longer necessary to spend years backcrossing with old varieties. A single characteristic – such as resistance to a certain disease – can be added to an established variety, or a trait can be eliminated. What’s clear is that Farmers need a complete set of tools if they are to continue to achieve high yields. And openness to new technologies is crucial. Otherwise, Europe and Switzerland risk falling behind in the production of agricultural goods.
Genetic engineering in organic pasta?
The TV program Terra X, broadcast by the German ZDF network, is exploring whether precision breeding methods like CRISPR/Cas can contribute to more sustainable, diverse and climate-resistant agriculture. It is also looking at why we are consuming genetically modified plants even when we shop in organic food stores.
People are open to genetic engineering
A recent study conducted by gfs.bern shows that the oft-cited skepticism of the Swiss regarding genetic engineering is actually a myth. When respondents are aware of a technology’s concrete benefits, they are more willing to accept it. A large majority believe that gene editing is beneficial if it protects plants from mildew or fire blight.
At the end of October, swiss-food.ch hosted a film screening and panel discussion in Zurich on the subject of genome editing entitled “Between Protest and Potential”. The well-attended event dealt with the emotional debates in recent decades surrounding genetic engineering. The event showed that the situation has changed fundamentally.
To denigrate green genetic engineering, narratives that do not stand up to scrutiny keep popping up in the public debate. The aim in each case is political. Recently, the false claims are intended to prevent the regulation of new breeding methods such as Crispr Cas from being technology-friendly.
The science magazine "Einstein" of Swiss Television has addressed the new breeding methods. The report clearly shows that there is no way around these new methods if Switzerland wants to continue cultivating popular apple varieties such as Gala, Braeburn, and Golden Delicious.
In future, the EU wants to treat genome-edited plants in the same way as conventionally bred ones. As the "NZZ am Sonntag" writes, this is like a small revolution. Until now, the commercial use of gene scissors has been impossible due to an extremely restrictive genetic engineering law.