Statement on the safety of plant breeding, including genome editing
As plant breeding practices and tools have evolved over the years, so has the knowledge of plant science governing these activities. In the past two decades, significant gains in genomic analysis has facilitated a greater overall understanding of the kinds and levels of changes that happen to plants naturally at the genomic level, how these genomic changes are related to the plant characteristics (phenotype), and how these changes are compared to changes intentionally introduced through human intervention. New tools have improved the ability to track and identify mutations that occur in the plant (which can be neutral, beneficial or detrimental in nature), as well as the ability to manage or selected for the resultant characteristics (at both the genomic and phenotypic level). Overall the increase in knowledge reduces the level of uncertainty of unintended consequences which may arise. This knowledge has also enabled the development of tools to make it easier and more precise to generate desired beneficial traits in plants or eliminate undesirable ones.
The combination of a greater understanding of the types of changes that occur in plants, with the fact that new tools can be used to make the same kinds of changes that have always occurred in plants, can allow to leverage the long and safe history of plant breeding based on the types of changes being made (the product) vs how they were introduced (the breeding tool/method). Basically, the establishment of safety for new tools is a comparative assessment whereby new tools can be considered as safe as established tools, when they are used for the same objectives and make the same kinds of changes.
One of agriculture’s latest breakthrough technologies, genome editing, is a tool where it’s focused use is on making the same kind changes to a plant as does occur in conventional plant breeding, but with more precision and more efficiently. This tool has significant potential for contributing to more sustainable agriculture and achieving food and nutritional security. Given the importance of public acceptance of any new technology, it is crucial for the public to have access to trustworthy information on safety. The below statements on the safety of plant breeding and gene-editing have been made based on existing expertise and bodies of evidence. We acknowledge that safety represents only one area of potential public interest about gene editing. These statements are not meant to discourage broader discussion about gene editing and its potential uses, they simply provide statements on the current scientific consensus on the certainty of safety of plant breeding tools.
Plant breeding is the process of developing improved varieties with specific desirable characteristics.
The tools used to develop new plant varieties are diverse and ever-evolving, all based on leveraging the wide array of genetic variation, but the overall process of plant breeding is the same: Plant breeders introduce genetic diversity from which to select desirable characteristics. The rate of genetic change that occurs naturally in plants is high, and even higher with certain conventional breeding methods, which is leveraged to bring about the desired changes. Modern plant breeding programs are a science-driven process conducted by researchers with a deep knowledge of both the crops and markets they are working to improve.
The activity of plant breeding process – irrespective of breeding method – has built-in safeguards that ensure new commercial varieties are well-characterized and safe for farmers, consumers and the environment.
The fundamental steps involved in plant breeding include extensive evaluation and elimination of off type plants to ensure the development of safe varieties (ASTA 2019a, Glenn et al., 2017; Kaiser et al., 2020). When warranted, this can include monitoring for unintended effects to known anti-nutrients and allergens, as needed. The literature and hundreds of years of history support the long-standing safe track record of the plant breeding framework in the modern era. As an example, in Canada alone, over 6000 grain crop varieties, developed from traditional and modern breeding methods, have been commercialized in the last 40 years with no product recalls due to safety concerns. The reason for this is because plant breeders know their crop and market, know what to look for, and know what kind of evaluations are necessary and when.
When using genome editing to develop products that are the same as what could be found in nature or created from conventional breeding methods, the products can be considered just as safe.
Genome editing can support plant breeders in working within the plant’s own gene pool to achieve the same goals they pursue through conventional breeding but more efficiently with more precise and reliable changes.