Two women, two positions: one wants to use genome editing to create new, better crops. The other would like agriculture to become more ecological and fairer – without genetic engineering.
Two women who at first glance want the same thing: better agriculture that protects the planet, withstands global warming and feeds people. And yet they couldn’t be more different.
The solution with genetic engineering
Catherine Feuillet, born in 1965, is French and, as a young biologist, did research in Switzerland at the Agroscope research institute and at the University of Zurich from 1994 to 2005 during the heyday of “old” genetic engineering: on wheat. She tried to find and clone a specific gene in wheat because it is central to resistance to a specific bacterial disease in wheat.
The plant researcher Catherine Feuillet from the US startup “Inari” relies on genome editing, the new “gentle” genetic engineering. She says: “Without this technology, we have no chance of feeding everyone in the long term.”
It took Feuillet ten years to do this. Ten years for something that, using today’s laboratory methods, takes a year at the most. It was tedious and frustrating, she says. So she decided that a better knowledge base was needed for such work: sequencing, i.e. a complete genetic map of wheat, as a better orientation for all who would come after her.
This project was also a mammoth task: “Some people said I was crazy because I even wanted to try it,” says Feuillet. Because the wheat genome is large and complex. A side effect of thousands of years of human breeding.
Research with great advances
Catherine Feuillet started with a small group of colleagues at the French research institute INRA: “We were around 10 people at the beginning,” she recalls. Only in 2018, a good ten years later and with a consortium of over 1000 researchers on board, was it finally done: The wheat genome was mapped.
In the meantime, in 2012, the CRISPR-Cas gene scissors had entered the scientific world stage. It was clear to Feuillet that she wanted to use the new tool. Together with powerful computers and algorithms that can also evaluate very large amounts of data, genome editing offers a huge opportunity to finally tackle complex traits in plants genetically: “It’s actually only now that things are really getting really exciting in genetics. Sometimes I wish I could start my career all over again.”
What can the new GM plants do?
So far, plants that could actually ensure sustainable agriculture only exist in the greenhouses of researchers: Wheat, which is resistant to powdery mildew, was developed in China. The fungal disease powdery mildew can cost up to 40 percent of the harvest: Many other new plants come from the same laboratory. China is probably far ahead here, but laboratories in the USA, Europe and worldwide are also involved.
Feuillet has headed the scientific department at the US startup Inari for several years now. Inari, very American, is committed to big goals: 20 percent more yields for corn, soybeans and wheat, 40 percent less water consumption and 40 percent less fertilizer use in corn cultivation – simply through better seed.
Experienced seed breeders will scratch their heads at these numbers. Feuillet says: “It’s possible” and realizes that it sounds a bit crazy.
The solution with agroecology
Stefanie Pondini, born in 1983, has been working for the Swiss NGO Biovision for a good 12 years for a different type of agriculture, in the spirit of the founder of Biovision, Hans Herren. He was one of the pioneers in biological pest control in the late 1980s.
Program manager, political dialogue & advocacy / Biovision
Stefanie Pondini from the Swiss NGO “Biovision” lobbies for an agriculture that conserves resources and is more just. She says: “The solution to the world’s nutritional problems will certainly not come from the laboratory.”
Pondini wants an agriculture that does not require exploitation, whether it is about natural resources or people. “It needs a revolution,” she says. The concept that encompasses all the changes is called “agroecology”. «12 years ago we were laughed at for our ideas. Today, at international conferences, Switzerland is committed to ensuring that agroecology is recognized as an important part of the solution,” says Pondini.
Genome editing and “old” genetic engineering
From the researchers’ point of view, the interventions with the CRISPR-Cas gene scissors are a huge step forward: they cut more precisely and finely into the genome than all genetic engineering tools used to date. From the consumer’s point of view, things look a little different: there are and will remain interventions in the genetic material.
What is different is that genome-edited plants are usually not transgenic, i.e. they do not carry genes from other species. In principle, the selective changes in the genome that are made with genome editing could also occur by chance. That is why many researchers advocate using these no longer to be so strictly regulated, like the “old” genetic engineering. consumer advocates and environmental organizations remain skeptical.
From their point of view, relying on genetic engineering or genome editing would be of little help at best. In the worst case, however, the hope for a technological solution distracts from the necessary changes. Or the new technology could even cause damage if used too rashly.
Pondini fights to ensure that farmers all over the world have opportunities to learn and then achieve better harvests with better, especially organic farming methods: “In this way, they are also better able to cope with the changes caused by climate change.”
Two women, two positions that could hardly be more opposite. Feuillet says: “I like it when I’m challenged.” And: “Many mistakes were made with the old genetic engineering, politically and economically. I hope we learned something new.”
And Pondini: “In order for me to start thinking about genome editing, a few conditions would have to be met: fair access to the new technology, orientation towards the needs of farmers, to name just two.” There could hardly be anything more exciting than bringing both of them to a table to see if they couldn’t find an intersection after all.