Many wild relatives of crops have genes which protect them from drought, disease and other stresses. These are exactly the characteristics we want in our crops, so these genes have great potential for agriculture.
Organic agriculture is in particular need of new genetic resources because modern crop varieties are normally bred with conventional agriculture in mind. Without inputs which are banned in organic agriculture, these varieties often don’t thrive. Currently average yields are lower on organic farms, and new genetic resources could help reduce this difference.
Genes from wild relatives can be introduced into crop plants to produce more robust varieties through ‘rewilding’ (a name which certainly fits with the organic brand).
Interbreeding crops and their wild relatives is already producing crop varieties which are less reliant on pesticides and fertilisers. However, drawbacks include the time taken (generally over 10 years) and the potential disruption or loss of favourable genes. So what are the latest alternative options?
The incredible progress in the speed and affordability of genome sequencing means it is becoming much easier to identify desirable genes. We also have New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) which allow for much more accurate changes to DNA than older genetic modification techniques.
One of these techniques is cisgenesis, which allows for the transfer of complete genes from wild relatives into domesticated crops. It can be restricted to a single gene, so avoids transferring extra DNA that could have undesired effects.
Another technique, precision breeding, can create specific changes to the DNA, meaning it may only alter in a single nucleotide (of which the wheat genome has 17,000,000,000). This technique is so new that no rewilding has yet been done this way, and we don’t even know whether the EU will class it as GM.
A new paper analyses whether organic agriculture will be able to take advantage of rewilding through New Breeding Techniques. Rewilding in many ways fits with the principles of organic, allowing crops to make effective use of resources so limit the need for pesticides and fertilisers. However, currently there is resistance to any varieties which are classed as GM.
The authors point out that there is a trend for retailers to describe food as natural because, of course, ‘natural = good’. It’s tempting to say that NBTs produce more natural crops than other GM techniques, but what does anyone seeking natural food believe ‘natural’ to be? Many people in food debates have different ideas of natural, and perhaps this lack of shared understanding is contributing to the stalemate.
‘Unpredictability’ is perhaps worth considering. This is one of the reasons which organic agriculture rejects GM, and NBTs can reduce unpredictability.
As to whether NBTs will be used to benefit organic farming, the first question is about how NBTs will be defined (currently the EU says Cisgenesis = GM, Precision breeding = ?). Given the current definitions, will the organic movement can rise above GM/non-GM branding and analyse evidence about whether NBTs can support their cause? Interesting times.