Gene Editing, Data Science Hot Topics at World Food Prize

Gene editing could democratize access to technology.

Gene editing, dealing with a general public skeptical of agriculture, and data science were all hot topics at this week’s World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Here’s some of what panelists discussed.

Gene Editing 

This new technology works differently than the technology behind genetically modified organisms (GMOs), where a foreign material is inserted into a plant. With gene editing, changes are made to the existing plant genome, rather than with foreign genetic material.
“I love gene editing,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars, Inc. He’s particularly excited about its potential for aflatoxin resistance. Just in U.S. corn, estimates are that aflatoxin contamination losses could range from $52.1 million to $1.68 billion annually if climate change causes more regular aflatoxin contamination in the Corn Belt as was experienced in years such as 2012.

If aflatoxin tries infecting plants that have been gene edited to resist it, this fungal disease has no place to go in the plant, Shapiro says. 
“I think it (gene editing) has the unique opportunity to democratize access to technology in much the same way in what we are seeing with (agricultural) digital tools,” says Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer. He’s hopeful that government approvals for this technology will happen without the cost and scrutiny that’s occurred with GMOs. 

Merging biology and data is making life easier for farmers

Fraley pointed to a new Monsanto app that enables a farmer who takes a picture of a diseased crop leaf to send it to the cloud, where it’s compared to diseased leaves on file. “It can identify the disease in a few seconds with 95% accuracy,” he says. 

Ditto for statistics and data analysis

Erik Fyrwald, chief executive officer (CEO) of Syngenta, notes that plant breeders working on developing desirable characteristics for the world’s major row crops and vegetables are now being supplemented by scientists using statistics and data analytics. They are developing techniques like visual trials to predict yield potential and other factors before planting trials occur.

“Sophisticated algorithms give insight into each market, and take into account growing conditions, soils, seed performance, and expected weather conditions so we can help famers improve seed selection and use of crop protection products.”

He notes this helps farmers use a whole farm management system to apply judicious amounts of inputs while producing maximum economic yields. It also allows food companies to ensure they are sourcing grains from sustainable farms, he says.

Organic agriculture took a beating 

“Some think the answer is going all organics,” says Fyrwald. It’s not, he says. He’s also troubled by what he calls inaccurate marketing claims regarding organic foods.

“Consumers are being misled,” he says. “Organic food is not more nutritious. It needs more land and water and emits more greenhouse gasses per unit of food production (compared with conventional agriculture.)”

Even so, some consumers are skeptical of agriculture and the food industry

“Societal acceptance of the farming community is limited,” says Jim Blome, president and CEO of Bayer Crop Science. “And societal acceptance of the food industry is sometimes very low. The paradox is young people will literally stand in line overnight for blocks-long lines to get the latest iPhone technology. But that same young person might prefer his (or her) food to be grown with a pair of mules. We aren’t telling our story enough and need to do something about it.”

There's evidence, though, that agriculture and the food industry are turning matters around. A recent Center for Food Integrity survey shows 55% of respondents saw the food system moving in the right direction, compared to just 45% saying it's on the wrong track or are unsure. The favorable 55% figure is up from 40% in 2015. 

If your high-school or college-age kids are wondering what do with their lives, tell them to bone up on their biology classes

Randal Kirk, chairman and chief executive officer of Intrexon, says that employment advertisements in the back pages of scientific journals like Nature are packed with ads for positions in systems biology, computational biology, and cell biology. 

“Those are the people in demand today,” he says. 

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