Viewpoint: Harvard fellow on why crop engineering is crucial to addressing food security and growing sustainability challenges

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Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

We routinely assume that “natural” is better than “unnatural” when it comes to food. But it is more complex than that. Potatoes and some other vegetables contain toxins which could be deadly if we didn’t tackle them by breeding them out or avoiding mouldy bits. Organic crops are grown using pesticides including copper sulphate, which is toxic even though it is naturally occurring.

Genetic modification certainly feels scary — because it involves inserting extra DNA, even if that’s only one additional gene to the plant’s own tens of thousands. Gene-editing, by contrast, precisely targets specific genes to fast-track changes that would take years using selective breeding.  

To transform agriculture and reduce its impact, we need both techniques. For genetic modification can still do things which gene editing can’t. The UK’s Rothamsted Research crop centre is testing camelina plants genetically modified to express the same kind of Omega-3 oils found in fish. 

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Explaining the real trade-offs to the public will be a big job. But personally, I would rather eat a slightly altered version of the Cavendish banana than never eat one again. 

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