New agricultural biotechnology could replace traditional breeding

Biophilia is an organic farm in Jamesport.

By Kayla McKiski and Jillian Weynand

A new genetic-engineering technique that can increase crop yield was announced by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory this month.

The technology, the CRISPR/cas9 system, is allowing scientists to vary yield-determining traits “the way a dimmer switch controls a light bulb,” according to a press release from CSHL. The speed and efficiency of this technology could replace traditional breeding methods.

“[CRISPR] would achieve immediately the same effect as a conventional breeding program,” Jeff J. Doyle, professor and chair of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Department at Cornell, said. “This conventional process could take decades, and the result would still be less precise, or surgical, than the CRISPR approach.”

Traits like fruit size, branching architecture and plant shape determine yield. Improvements in these traits through traditional breeding methods are small, laborious, and time-consuming. However, locals are not convinced that the benefits of this technology are enough to stray from non-GMOs.

“My humble take on this germline editing is the damage our plodding into a wise old self-sustaining system can do,” Margaret Glignor-Schwarz, a vocal Long Island advocate for organic farming, said. “I liken it to our being a bull in a china shop.”

Long Island is home to over 20 certified organic farms, which follow traditional methods of breeding.

“Organic can easily keep up with the yield,” Philip Barbato, owner of Biophilia, a 14-acre organic farm in Jamesport, said. “They pushed [genetic modification] so hard that people start to believe in it, it’s not even true. If all of it could be changed to the organic methods climate change wouldn’t be a problem. We wouldn’t have food deserts.”

Current rates of crop production won’t meet the planet’s future agricultural demands as the human population grows, according to the CSHL press release. Despite this claim,  Barbato, an environmental engineer of 30 years, insists that biotech crops are not the way to go.

“I would push for smaller, family sized farms, using organic methods and there are plenty of methods out there that show it would be better for people.” Barbato said.

The public has not been welcoming to the idea of agricultural biotechnology. Annual marches against agricultural biotech company Monsanto and non-profit organizations like the Non-GMO Project have worked to warn the public about genetic modification.

“There is a growing attempt on the part of biotechnology companies to distance themselves from the consumer rejection of GMOs by claiming that new types of genetic engineering (for example, gene editing) are not actually genetic engineering,” Courtney Pineau, Non-GMO Project Associate Director said. “To bring clarity in the face of this misleading trend, the Non-GMO Project has explicitly included these technologies in our Standard.”

The website lists that genetic engineering is connected to “health problems” and “environmental damage.” However, scientists insist the technology’s safety.

“The National Science Foundation conducted a multiple year study evaluating potential dangers and concluded that genetic engineering is safe,” Mark Bridgen, director of the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, said. “When F1 hybrids were introduced, they had the same fear from people.”

About Kayla McKiski 5 Articles
My name is Kayla McKiski. I'm a journalism and biology double major at Stony Brook University, where I serve as the arts editor at The Statesman.