We recently highlighted the emerging community of innovators focused on greater health, diversity and sustainability in food production. These companies recognize that the traditional agricultural system has not fully met consumer demands and has emerged to fill this gap with benefits for both consumers and farmers. Our mission at Benson Hill is to empower this community of food innovators to tap the natural genetic diversity of plants and develop better food choices.
The genetic code of a plant is more diverse than that of a human, but that genetic potential has been almost completely untapped. In fact, 99.9% of our global calories derive from less than 0.1% of the natural genetic diversity available to us. For decades, crop improvement has been largely limited to a few of the largest seed companies focused on a few of the highest acre crops.
Gene Editing Can Help Catalyze that Vision
Gene editing is a natural progression of the traditional breeding methods of Mendel that we have used for centuries, but gene editing is more precise. Gene editing is also more affordable, which enables more, new innovators to tap the natural genetic diversity of plants to develop better products.
Third-party oversight is appropriate to manage risks and realize benefits of any new innovation. Many scientists have called for risk-based regulation of gene editing based on the merits of the product, rather than on the process used to make it. This approach ensures safety without creating a costly barrier to entry for smaller companies to apply gene editing and make improvements to a variety of crops.
Empowering a Community of Food Innovators
Recently, the European Court of Justice issued a decision that any new breeding technique developed after 2001 needs to fulfill the extensive regulatory requirements of a GMO, regardless of how the techniques and products differ. The consumer advocacy organization Consumers for Science in the Public Interest highlights some of the potential impacts if regulatory oversight is based on the time of use of a breeding technique rather than on the potential risk posed by the product.
Relegating all gene-edited products to a GMO regulatory system that was not designed for new innovations will perpetuate the model that only a few large corporations decide which traits and crops are improved. Regulatory agencies of the US and South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia have instead adopted a risk-based regulatory approach that reviews products on their own merit, maintaining opportunities for new food innovators working to modernize food production.
However, government regulation can and should be only part of the story. When those using gene editing transparently demonstrate their commitment to responsible use and safety, both farmers and consumers will benefit. We are pleased to participate in a diverse committee of stakeholders recently established by The Center for Food Integrity to develop a framework for responsible use of gene editing in plants and animals, so food buyers can feel confident that technology developers are doing the right thing.
There is an urgency to design a better food system – one that supplies the nourishment we need while protecting our planet, and there is a risk of not empowering the modern community of innovators with the tools that can help them achieve this important vision.