August 3, 2015
In geopolitics, we often take the wide-lens view, looking at the impersonal, sweeping factors that limit the influence of individuals. Yet the microscopic — genes and their manipulations — and the deeply personal still have the potential to affect the behaviors of nations in the years and decades to come. As gene-editing techniques continue to improve and new gene functions are uncovered, the agricultural industry is poised to benefit. And while the United States will remain a world leader in agricultural biotechnology, China will likely become more competitive as well.
Farmers have been selectively breeding for desirable qualities long before the genes behind these qualities were identified. It was only when transgenic crops, in which a foreign gene is inserted into the plant's DNA, began to be used commercially in the 1990s that the term "genetically modified organism," or GMO, became part of the common lexicon on food. This first generation of genetic engineering, which focused on pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, is not the future of the industry. Genetic engineering is likely to focus on the assurance of more desirable traits, such as drought resistance and nitrogen uptake, and is not going away despite the social stigma associated with GMOs in some areas of the world. Advancements in biological techniques over the course of the last several years and a better understanding of various plant genomes have increased the ability to control these desired traits. Gene editing will be a necessary tool for future advancements in agricultural biotechnology and can save time over traditional crossbreeding methods. Mildew-resistant wheat and an herbicide-tolerant canola are just two examples in which gene editing is already being used.
Gene-edited crops are poised to enter the North American commercial market in the very near future: A gene-edited crop will enter the Canadian market in 2016. With a solid foundation in the academic world and a favorable entrepreneurial environment, the United States is set to remain a world leader in gene editing. The favorable rulings by the U.S. Department of Agriculture mean that gene-edited crops will be able to enter the market faster than their GMO counterparts.
The ambiguity in European legislation on gene-edited crops will likely delay commercialization in Europe because gene-edited crops are classified as GMOs in Europe, a traditionally hostile market. This is not to say that the Europeans will not make strides in gene editing at all. The industrial biotechnology sector in Europe is already well established, and with wider support to increase the environmental friendliness of many manufacturing processes, industrial biotechnology is likely to drive many of the advances toward further commercialization and advancement of gene-editing technology in Europe.
Additionally, China's burgeoning agricultural biotechnology sector will probably fully use the techniques. Chinese labs have already demonstrated less hesitation to attempt gene editing in human cells. Still, the United States will remain at the forefront of the movement. The sheer number of patents related to the field will make it difficult for any single nation to supplant Washington as a world leader in agricultural biotechnology.