The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has invited lecturers, scientists and companies with relevant competences and experience in the market to speak about the current applications of new plant breeding techniques to help farmers respond to the most pressing environmental challenges and increase the efficiency of production and plant nutrition in these difficult times. And more and more experts are afraid of a food disaster. We have a kind of paradox here – a consumer lifestyle, overproduction of food and a culture of well-being, which means that the dormant inhabitants of Europe do not accept the scale of danger. The question is, what threatens us? Climate change, environmental pollution, desertification and land degradation or weather disasters – droughts mix with violent storms. Due to the rising temperature, subtropical cereal diseases such as the pandemic wheat rust disease are beginning to reach our continent, for which European crops have not developed resistance genes. According to scientists, if by 2030 we do not stop the global temperature increase on average below 2 degrees, we are threatened by climate and agricultural catastrophe, that is a reduction of harvest by up to 40%. In addition, we need to find ways to feed the growing population, which in 2050 can be estimated at nearly 10 billion people. If we do not achieve massive increases in food yields, combined with a huge drop in water use and fossil fuels, at least a billion people will face hunger, which may become the most critical problem of the current century.
Why in Europe such a platform for dialogue as this training is organized by the Americans? Researchers from the United States use genetic modifications on a large scale, equipping their crops with defense mechanisms against unfavorable conditions, so it's not only about better quality of parameters such as taste or sugar content, how many of us can shallow. A good example is the genetic lines resistant to temporary water shortages, the growing problem of farmers. Instead of waiting for 10-12 years using traditional methods, thanks to GMO, we can shorten the breeding time to 3-4 years. And time plays a leading role here. Western practice has shown that in the direction of automation we also reduce the costs of obtaining new varieties. In the case of seeds in the highly regulated European GMO industry today, the new variety can cost $100 million and requires 12-14 years of research and development, while the latest molecular culture – without introducing foreign genes – can bring huge profits in 5-10 years, and development costs will be counted in hundreds of thousands, not millions of dollars.
Europe, however, with arms and legs defends itself against the editing of plant genes and, of course, I am not talking about a scientific community that has enough research for decades to believe in these ideas, or perhaps there are no studies that would deny them. Remember that scientists are a rather conservative group of people, meanwhile they have to be the impulse of changes in people's consciousness. The fact that European policy is anti GMOs we had the opportunity to see almost exactly a year ago, when groups of opponents and supporters of genetic modifications met at the Court of Justice of the EU. What some call open, blind, parish opposition, others already define the precautionary principle, in which if there is even little-known risk of harmful consequences of a given technique, it is not introduced.
The French farmers' association was opposed to the liberal treatment of the relatively new CRISPR Cas9 method, and the Court accepted that this technique would be included in the common catalog of genetically modified varieties, which in practice almost excludes its use in plant breeding. Preventive and protectionist character is argued for the possibility of transgenic crop movement, irreversible changes to the natural environment or the need to protect this environment and human health.
The dispute about GMOs has basically two sides – large-scale American agriculture, based on the latest technologies and smaller, more traditional European agriculture. EU regulations are to protect their producers from the flood of cheaper products from the USA. However, Europeans are also slowly changing their mentality. First of all, the Scandinavian countries are more and more openly opposed to these regulations, and they have no interest in protecting their agriculture, because for geographical reasons, it is not an important segment of the economy for them, they simply want to use better and cheaper products. Secondly, you probably remember the loud takeover of American Monsanto, controversial and awesome leader of genetic modification, by Bayer. The German pharmaceutical and chemical giant would not decide on such a move if our Western neighbors were to continue to support the strict regulations on GMOs. An ethical question arises, should more important be the opinion of scientists confirmed by research and the consensus of this environment regarding the safety of GMOs or the essence of democracy, and so what does the people want?
"To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life" – this is the Wageningen University & Research Center mission. Over 6,000 employees and 12,000 students from over 100 countries face everyday problems in the field of food production and technology, environment, health and application of these solutions to business and their impact on the state apparatus. The combination of a specialized research institute and a university unit leads to groundbreaking discoveries in the field of natural and social sciences, which can be easily implemented. Such a huge scientific center was created interestingly in a small city of only 35 thousand residents.
After the theoretical part of the training, we could go for 3 alternative science trips. First of all, we visited places of plant tissue cultivation on the campus, where CRISPR Cas tests are conducted, and the results could be followed in breeding chambers. We were in greenhouses, where, among others we watched disease-resistant tomatoes and cruciferous vegetables with improved fatty acids. Another group of people could see how to use CRIPSR Cas to combat the main threats to banana farming and see the fruits there before they are tested for disease resistance. Dutch bananas really make a sensation and meet with great environmental excitement. The first of them was collected in December last year in the campus greenhouses. They were not grown in soil, but in mineral wool and coconut fiber for farmers in the tropics terrified of Panama disease, which destroys banana crops in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Middle East. The fungus Fusarium oxysporum that causes it is resistant to available chemicals and very difficult to control. Huge drops in production, the increase in prices and the decline in the availability of these delicious, filling fruits are a huge loss for us Europeans, but for the inhabitants of some areas of Asia and Africa it is simply the specter of famine. Let me remind you that banana and cocoa trees are in danger of extinction, and a world without chocolate and bananas would be much sadder, isn’t it?
The last group went outside the university, but in the neighborhood to KeyGene, founded in 1989, currently employing an international team of 160 people, specializing in the improvement of cultivation thanks to molecular breeding. As an example, we can provide a project financed from EU funds from the Horizon 2020 program. In this framework, scientists are developing new types of chicory, a plant grown for the production of inulin, dietary fiber with low calories, good for bacteria in the gut. Journalists could see the climatic chamber in which chicory plants are grown in vitro, and then visit the company's research greenhouse.
It is not without reason that I am mentioning one of the companies, because in a very extensive and interesting article from 2018, the “Financial Times” called the Wageningen University & Research Centre an agricultural Silicon Valley, where many investors come to be in the center of the revolution in production industry. The authors of the text have classified the Dutch university on a par with the American powers – the University of California, Davis and the Cornell University as the leading research centers in the field of food technology. Within a radius of 10 km around this small Dutch town there are about 200 companies, and in addition to leading food producers such as Kraft Heinz, we also have many small start-ups and just to help them establish relationships with the private sector in 2004, the university created a Food Valley networking group, enabling newly-entrepreneurs to reach corporations, partners or even legal advisors. For food production to be sustainable, healthy and safe, such clusters are at a premium, there is a lot of space and niches on the market, and close cooperation will certainly help them better position themselves on it.
Older professors remember well the times when they were advised not to make a career at this university, saying that this school is for farmers only, a lot has changed in this aspect. The agricultural production ready for innovation will strongly change the structure of the market, where the position of large, multinational food businesses and agricultural groups can be undermined. In the era of high demand for specific nutrients in developing countries and changes in consumer tastes from mass-produced brands towards healthier, more unique products, especially in Western countries, strong pressure is created on existing food suppliers, and thus a friendly ecosystem for start-ups and venture capital funds that want to invest in gene editing, artificial intelligence, and digital technologies in the context of agricultural production.
What does AI have for food production? Scientists are working on the robot's arm, equipped with a range of sensors that are to check the degree of fruit and vegetables maturity, without squeezing them and collecting the best quality at the best time. Robotics, taught mechanical dexterity and spatial orientation, firstly can answer the challenges of human nature (shortage of manpower in agriculture), second – technological (variety of shapes and time of harvest maturation). Another example – the SoilCares application analyzes soil pH, organic matter and other properties, and then sends the results to the Dutch database and returns a detailed report on the optimal use of fertilizers and the necessary nutrients. Over a period of up to 10 minutes and for a price of several dollars, the report provides data that can help you reduce crop losses. Less than 5% of the total number of farms estimated at 570 million today has access to the soil laboratory.
In 5 years to 2017, annual global investments in food technologies from farm management systems to robotics and mechanization, more than tripled, up to $10 billion. An important issue is also looking for alternatives to meat, because maybe in the era of the vege trend you do not realize that global meat consumption can increase by up to 76% by 2050. The protein must come from various products, we need a balance both on a micro scale, we need to provide the body with diversity, and on a macro scale, humanity will not be able to provide such supplies of one dominant category of food.
In "National Geographic" I read the text A tiny country feeds the world, small area but densely populated (over 17 million people in total and 414 per km2 with e.g. 123 in Poland) and an agricultural giant that produces abundant yields based on limited resources and innovative technologies that are a new way to fight hunger. Now a few examples showing this title contrast and meeting two Dutch concepts: 1) Twice as much food, using half of the resources. 2) University for the world, not only for the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is the largest exporter of vegetable seeds in the world, over 1/3 of the trade in seeds is about this country. Dutch companies are working on seed export value of $1.7 billion in 2017, without GMO products. Leader in the export of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and the second largest vegetable and food exporter in terms of value. It gives way only to the USA, which has 270 times more space. Since 2000, the country has reduced the dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90%, almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides in greenhouse plants, and since 2009, Dutch poultry and livestock producers have reduced the use of antibiotics by up to 60%.
Superproductive family farms in the Netherlands can produce twice as large potato harvests as the world average. Drones assess the health of plants and determine exactly how much water and nutrients they need for development. The innovative interior of the greenhouse and the Hydroculture system of biodegradable flower pots in Siberia's cultivation channels ensure optimal growing conditions for lettuce and other leafy vegetables – each of 22 acres in the greenhouse gives as much lettuce as 10 acres outside and reduces the need for chemicals by 97%. By changing the color of the light and its inclination in the breeding room, you can also change the smell, taste and even the content of vitamins in tomatoes. For example, red light for better growth, but already blue for shorter plants with a higher level of antioxidants, and for plants with long stems and fewer branches – dark red color. A special generator converts natural gas into electricity for lighting. By-products – heat and carbon dioxide – are captured and used from greenhouse heating and plant growth, i.e. a typical closed loop. In such a self-sufficient loop you can also produce vegetables and fish – fish waste fertilizes plants that filter water for fish, and local restaurants, e.g. in The Hague, willingly offer products from such farms. As an example of good practice, you can also provide a rotary milking machine that allows one operator to milk 150 cows per hour. See how many examples of innovations, and this is not even GMOs, only specific technical solutions.
Today, much of the research activity of the Wageningen University & Research Centre focuses on problems affecting poor nations. About 45% of graduates – almost 2/3 of all PhD candidates – come from abroad, often from areas affected by hunger. The number of Asians, headed by Chinese and Indonesians, outnumber all non-Dutch Europeans altogether. People who graduate from the university often occupy the highest positions of agricultural ministries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Wageningen runs over 1,000 projects in over 140 countries, with constant contact with governments and universities on 6 continents. These include projects such as management of transitional zones from farms to endangered Latin American tropical forests, vegetable crops in Ghana, insemination of cows in Kenya, improvement of potato tubers quality in Ethiopia, reconstruction of forests in Indonesia, containment of deforestation in Kazakhstan, innovative rice cultivation with low the demand for water in India, the study of the spread of pathogens carried by flood waters in Bangladesh, the new railway line for the transport of food Rotterdam – Hong Kong.
Finally, crème de la crème, CRISPR Cas9. Genome is a basic information about the structure and functioning of our body, stored in a chemical form. The carrier of genetic information of every living organism is DNA, which has the structure of the so-called double helix. A human genome is a ladder consisting of as many as 3.2 billion letters, and what's interesting, people are not even recorders in this respect - such an inconspicuous plant called Paris Japonica has the most complex genome, consisting of 150 billion such DNA letters. Genome editing is a revolutionary technology that allows for quick and precise changes in the genetic material of living organisms (plants, microbes, animals and humans). And today we are even talking about changing a single letter from among billions of others, replacing a fragment of DNA, turning on or off the selected gene without the need to introduce foreign genes. The CRISPR Cas technology allows this, which according to the journal "Science" has been recognized as the scientific breakthrough of 2015.
The name is not very sexy and you should not be surprised that not everyone understands the full development of this abbreviation, and it looks like – Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats
(CRISPR). Cas 9 (CRISPR
is such molecular scissors that are directed to a specific place in the genome by the guide, the CRISPR RNA molecule and after reaching the target can cross the DNA strand in this particular, desired place. In short, it is a way to perform a specific mutation at a predetermined location in the genome. And mutations are usually associated badly as the basis of inherited diseases or their accumulation leading to human cancer. However, gene functions can also be improved by mutations, e.g. the fact that we can digest protein in cow's milk is the result of such a mutation. Mutations also create variation within the species, are essential to life, because without them there would be no evolution and biological diversity, which is the basis of every farm, so we are all mutants.
This revolutionary and completely new technology uses a mechanism that is not new in itself: bacteria and archaea use it to protect themselves against viruses. It was created by nature millions of years ago, man did not invent it, but changed the system into a useful tool for well-directed genome editing – needed in gene therapy and crop improvement, which has already become a fact. Moreover, cheaper, faster and more universal than alternative solutions. And this ease in implementation may frighten people who hear about playing God or children for the order, but I will go in a different direction.
This technology is currently used in many laboratories of universities and companies around the world. Using the genome editing, scientists have already developed disease-resistant wheat and tomatoes, drought-resistant corn, tomatoes, soy and rapeseed with a healthier nutritional composition. In addition, the tomato gene was mutated in the American laboratory that its growth is more consistent and blooms earlier in the season. Chinese scientists turned off the gene in tropical indica rice so that the plant could develop shorter stems, which increases its efficiency, similar effects were achieved with soy. The Americans created a strain of rice resistant to bacterial plague. What is more, the appropriate mutations in the enzyme made the mushrooms have a lower tendency to the disease symptom, which is browning. It has also been possible to modify the composition of fatty acids in oilseeds.
However, I would like to bring the applications of genome editing to three desired goals:
* Disease resistance that is key to more sustainable agriculture. This allows the use of less plant protection products, reducing their environmental impact. Currently, several relevant genes have been identified in the cultivation of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and citrus, which provide resistance to various pathogens, including fungi, oomycetes, bacteria and viruses for which there is no natural defenses.
* Sustainable development in the processing industry. For example, starch in potatoes consists of two polysaccharides – amylose and amylopectin, and those varieties which have only amylopectin are particularly appreciated because of its excellent properties especially with non-food products. Studies show that the mutation of one key gene would allow this, which using the standard methods is too chemically and energy-intensive.
* Gluten intolerance in people with celiac disease affects 1-2% of the human population. The only remedy is to remove gluten, which is difficult, because it is an additive that gives structure to a wide range of products – snacks, soups, sauces, sausages. Gluten-free products usually also have a lower nutritional value and a shorter shelf-life. One of the graduate students in Wageningen showed that you can use CRISPR Cas for wheat farming, in which the gluten has been modified in such a way that people suffering from celiac disease can eat it while maintaining the quality of the product.
However, the law lags behind innovations and often blocks them. Researchers can continue their work, but they can not test plants that have been developed using CRISPR Cas outside because they need a lot of different licenses for it. They must work in greenhouses under strict rules identical to GMOs. The Dutch government intends to reduce the use of plant protection products to zero by 2030, but how can it be done if the law binds them? The use of radiation and chemical substances in plant breeding, called classical mutagenesis, also involves changes in the genetic material, and yet these techniques are not considered to be an environmental hazard in European legislation on genetically modified organisms. In the US, you look at the DNA in the final product, if what we obtained by modifying it could simultaneously happen in nature, it is not GMO. In Europe, we look more at the production process and what includes human intervention – if we do anything artificial on DNA, it is GMO.
If the law would change, small growers and start-ups could successfully use CRISPR Cas because of the low cost and simplicity of this method, so that the market could not be dominated by large producers while generating healthier, better and cheaper products. Meanwhile, many valuable, profitable and innovative research programs will probably be transferred from Europe to the United States or China. Of course, this will have a very negative impact on research potential and international trade in Europe. I summarize this in one sentence, as in the case of GMOs, the genome edition is used to deliberately modify one or more crop characteristics, but the similarity ends there.
The development of modern technologies must be constantly monitored and regulated in a way that minimizes the risk to health and life of people and the environment, but not stifling innovations. Along the way, you have to take care of a dialogue with the end user, because he needs to know what it is for, not necessarily going into the details of the technological processes. Industry and science must listen to consumers' fears and arguments and not be indifferent to them, but with the persistence of a maniac explain the idea of change. It is necessary to take a different direction of agricultural development, because the current one is not favorable for the public. That is why the CRISPRCon conference was just such a platform for dialogue, which from the United States moved to Wageningen this year and gathered several hundred people and I guarantee – not everyone was a supporter of genetic editing, but as the organizers emphasized – the meeting is not about offending, but getting to know the arguments of each group, because this is the comprehensive information and only understanding the concerns and motivations of the discussants can lead to a golden mean.
Adam Zalewski, editor-in-chief of Biotechnologia.pl and Cebiotech.com