A screenshot from the first webinar. From top left to bottom right: Dr Lafitte, Dr Gutterson, Dr Bertram, Dr Mashingaidze, Dr Hughes and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar, Theme Leader - Cell, Molecular Biology & Genetic Engineering at ICRISAT. Photo: ICRISAT

A One CGIAR initiative to unlock the potential of gene editing for agriculture

A screenshot from the first webinar. From top left to bottom right: Dr Lafitte, Dr Gutterson, Dr Bertram, Dr Mashingaidze, Dr Hughes and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar, Theme Leader - Cell, Molecular Biology & Genetic Engineering at ICRISAT. Photo: ICRISAT

A screenshot from the first webinar. From top left to bottom right: Dr Lafitte, Dr Gutterson, Dr Bertram, Dr Mashingaidze, Dr Hughes and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar, Theme Leader – Cell, Molecular Biology & Genetic Engineering at ICRISAT. Photo: ICRISAT

Experts from public, private and non-profit research sectors emphasized the importance of working together, the need for supportive regulations and increased technical capabilities to enable a One CGIAR to use Gene Editing for exponential crop improvement to meet its 2030 goals. These views were voiced during the opening session of a five-part global webinar series that began last week.

Setting the context for the session and the series itself, Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT, in her opening remarks, recounted the beginnings of gene editing in crops and underscored the immense untapped potential of the technology by referring to what has been accomplished as the tip of what is possible with gene editing.

Dr Hughes also drew attention to differences across the globe in regulation of gene editing technologies and the need for creating societal acceptance. “There is no internationally agreed regulatory framework for gene editing. It is going to be very hard to make an impact with such a fragmented approach. We need science based predictable proportional regulations with clear timelines to encourage innovations in food and agricultural systems. The societal concerns stem in part from lack of understanding of gene editing principles and application,” she said.

Dr Marco Ferroni, Chair, CGIAR System Board, moderated the session. In his opening address, Dr Ferroni urged CG centers to work without duplication, share expertise and infrastructure to realize CGIAR’s vision of a world without hunger, poverty and environmental degradation while ensuring affordability of food. He also announced the creation of a One CGIAR Community of Practice on Genome Editing and New Breeding Techniques in Agriculture. The COP aims to bring together experts and teams working in genome editing and provides a platform for interactions about specific issues in the domain.

Highlighting the role of partnerships, funding and supportive regulatory systems to realize the full potential of gene editing, Dr Ferroni pointed to Columbia’s recent recognition of CGIAR’s gene edited rice lines as conventional lines.

“It is heartening to note that 20 CGIAR lines edited to confer resistance to xanthomonas (blight causing bacteria) were declared in Columbia as conventional breeding lines. It is a big story and a result of partnership between many institutions,” he said and termed the development a “trailblazing” first for CGIAR.

In his talk, Dr Robert Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, lauded science and technologies delivered through the Green Revolution for driving higher productivity and lowering cost of food in the face of a growing population.

“If we didn’t have intensification and had extensification, with a steep bottom-line on cropland, we would have had no poverty reduction, a must-have to realize SDGs,” he said. “Agricultural growth is up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than other types of economic growth because it drives demand for locally produced goods.”

After showing the annual yield gains needed in maize and wheat to keep food prices constant as population grows and agriculture is stressed by climate change, pests and diseases, Dr Bertram contrasted breeding programs in the public and private sector and said the former is 20-30 years behind state-of-art private sector programs.

“The good news is, we know how to fix it. The Crops to End Hunger (CTEH ) is a way the CGIAR is upping its game through the work of its centers with the Excellence in Breeding platform. We can do this,” Dr Bertram said as he went on to enumerate the four pillars of CTEH – prioritize for impact, modernize breeding programs, strategic partnerships and measuring for impact. He advocated a crop improvement framework involving development of tools of gene editing that can strengthen breeding pipelines.

“There is an urgent need for stress tolerant cultivars of food crops so that farmers can adapt to climate change,” said Dr Kingston Mashingaidze, Senior Research Manager, Agricultural Research Council, South Africa, and mentioned the reasons for low productivity in sub-Saharan Africa- biotic and abiotic stresses, slow pace and high cost of conventional breeding, poor quality seed and slow variety turnover.

“Genome editing is the future, if not the ‘now’ of plant breeding. The public breeding programs are lagging in implementation of new breeding techniques owing to lack of trained personnel, inadequate investment in R&D, need for infrastructure, and in many situations, unfavorable regulatory landscapes,” he added.

Dr Mashingaidze also shared a few examples of collaborations employing NBTs in South Africa to demonstrate how strong partnerships can show the way ahead.

Dr Neil Gutterson, Senior Vice President, Chief Technology Officer, Corteva Agriscience, and a CGIAR System Board Member, said gene editing can help harvest variations in nature very quickly. To be able to tap the potential of gene editing, we need to have the genomics knowhow and capabilities, he said.

“The reference genome is not sufficient. Specific sequence of any given genome that one wants to access and edit is critical. The germplasm base and understanding target traits as well as their underlying genetics is critical. We should be able to edit directly in elite varieties and not varieties that need to be further bred as that would slow down the opportunity to create value through speed to serve farmers,” Dr Gutterson said while maintaining that a high-throughput pipeline structure to support editing is indispensable.

He cited two examples of Corteva’s work through public-private partnerships with partners including CG centers, CIMMYT and ICRISAT. These include development of maize hybrids resistant to Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) and Striga-resistant sorghum.  Dr Gutterson also mentioned there is progress in the global acceptance and regulatory scene of gene editing and called on the webinar’s audience to take up the responsibility of bringing societal acceptance.

Quoting Mr Bill Gates on the use of gene editing and other new technologies, Dr Renne Lafitte, Deputy Director, Crop R&D, Agricultural Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said neither the benefits of gene editing nor the decisions about whether to take advantage of them should be reserved only for developed countries. Such research should involve all stakeholders where it is likely to be deployed.

Dr Lafitte further said regulations may seem like hurdles to scientists but are needed for gene edited varieties to reach farmers. “Regulations are really important in keeping everyone safe and maintaining the legitimacy of activities and to support the farmers themselves. We are talking about one small part of supplying seeds but we have to recognize that regulations have an important role to play throughout the process.”

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