Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association
Supply · Service · Stewardship

Gene-Edited Plants and Animals: Can They Bridge the Divide in the GMO Debate?

The debate surrounding genetically engineered (“GE” or “GMO”) plants and animals has historically been, and still is, extremely divisive. Anti-GMO activists raise many objections, including two that often resonate with a segment of the public: (1) control of the food supply by a few multinational corporations, and (2) reliance on pesticides.
To exemplify these controversies, take Bt corn and cotton, wherein scientists have introduced bacterial genes[1] that produce insecticidal toxins. When insects eat portions of these plants where the toxin is produced—such as in the root, as is the case for the corn rootworm—they die, leaving the plant unharmed. Genetic engineering has also produced crops that are tolerant to glyphosate, so that when the herbicide is sprayed, the weeds around the plant are killed but the plant isn’t damaged. These GE crops have been developed by multinational companies and widely adopted by farmers in the U.S. and other countries.
But what if modern biotechnology could take those two objections out of the debate, as well as directly benefit consumers? Would there be greater consumer acceptance? A new generation of agricultural products that are being created through gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR and TALENS,[2] certainly have the potential to accomplish that. Both allow scientists to precisely delete or insert portions of DNA in the genome of a crop or animal. Gene editing is cheaper and easier to use than genetic engineering, so academic scientists and new startup biotechnology companies, in addition to multinational corporations, have begun to use these technologies to make new varieties of crops and animals with useful traits. Many gene-edited products in the commercial pipeline are not linked to pesticides and have unique traits that could be of interest to consumers.
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