An expert panel at a Farm Foundation forum on Tuesday agreed that the potential benefits of gene editing of crops and livestock species are enormous, but they also said the agribusiness sector faces challenges in gaining acceptance of GE traits and deploying them in commercial agriculture.

“It’s an issue and a technology that certainly holds a lot of promise,” FF President Constance Cullman told a National Press Club audience in Washington. "But there are a lot of questions about this technology,” with which scientists make specific targeted genetic changes within an organism’s chromosomes.

“As an experimental design,” Mitch Abrahamsen, executive vice president for Recombinetics, GE “is pretty straightforward . . . and very precise in our ability to change specific nucleotides.

“Almost everyone who uses GE (at Recombinetics) has been successful in finding and delivering the edit they are looking for. The technology works very well,” he said.

But, Abrahamsen said, “it’s one thing to have a . . . powerful technology . . . but if you can’t figure out how to get products onto the marketplace, if you can’t figure out how to get interest from both producers and consumer, it becomes just a scientific exercise.”

Acceligen, a division of Recombinetics, focuses on editing key traits that improve animal health, reduce pain, and so forth, and wants to commercialize traits such as hornless cattle and immunity to a disastrous swine virus called PRRS. “Delivery of the benefits to the farmers, the animals and consumers is the real reason to pursue these technologies,” Abrahamsen said. “We think the benefit is the pull” to successful development, he said

Swine resistance to the virus that causes Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome poses a tremendous challenge for another on the panel, Randy Spronk, Minnesota producer of about 200,000 market hogs a year. PRRS hits his herds hard every two or three years, causing deaths, stunted growth and poor feed conversion.

But the PRRS immunity trait is important, too, for anyone wanting to protect the environment, Spronk said, since it, like other biotech advances he has adopted with his crops, will spell more efficient production of pork and a smaller carbon footprint for this operation. “I am reducing the environmental impact of my business” continually in terms of land and water use, efficiency of feed use and so forth, he reports.

For Spronk, public discussion of GE is essential for “building consumer acceptance and confidence” in how American food is produced, “and that is why I hopped off my tractor today to come to Washington. We need to be transparent. We need to have social acceptance” if GE is going to be successfully deployed in the U.S., he believes.

In agreement was Kevin Diehl, who heads the Global Regulatory Seed Platform for DowDuPont’s Corteva AgriScience. Enabling the GE innovations requires gaining social acceptance of them, so “it’s critical that we reach downstream” to consumers, he said, showing the public how GE lets crop breeders “use a plant’s own molecular system to make changes beneficial to the plant.”

Consumers will favor new GE traits that make vegetable oils healthier, tomatoes tastier, for example, or save the banana (now threatened by disease) from loss of viability,

Also crucial, he said, is “a regulatory framework that promotes innovation while it manages risk. That is what’s going to be required in order for us to maximize the benefit that these tools can bring."

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