Devex Dish: Is CRISPR gene editing the secret to a climate-resilient food system?

JUN 12, 2024

By Tania Karas // 12 June 2024

Could CRISPR gene-editing technology hold the key to combating the global food crisis?

That’s the hope of many plant scientists who are applying the genome-editing method to agriculture. Introduced in 2012, CRISPR has taken a giant leap forward recently — and there’s hope that these gene-edited foods can unlock new opportunities for low- and middle-income countries to address hunger, combat poverty and inequality, and even cut carbon emissions, writes my colleague Catherine Cheney.

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But that’s only if the genetically engineered foods avoid the “GMO curse” — the regulatory and public perception battles that have plagued genetically modified organisms despite scientific consensus on their safety, she adds.

Whereas GMOs involve inserting foreign DNA from other organisms, newer and more targeted gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR may be more acceptable to consumers. CRISPR makes precise changes to genes without introducing traits from another species.

“New technologies bring new fears, and that’s okay,” says Paul Chavarriaga, who leads the Gene Editing Platform at the Biodiversity International and CIAT Alliance.

With CRISPR, scientists aren’t inventing anything that nature has not already invented, he explains. They are taking traits that are already in plants and switching them on or off, while maintaining all of the other desired traits.

And in addition to its precision, CRISPR is quicker and cheaper than previous DNA editing techniques. While traditional plant breeding methods can take decades, CRISPR enables plant scientists to quickly introduce genes with desired characteristics — which could prove critical in what Chavarriaga calls a “race against time” to address food insecurity amid the worsening impacts of climate change.

Plant scientists are finding fascinating applications for CRISPR to improve productivity and yields in lower-income countries. Take the research on teff, a nutrient-packed ancient grain that is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. The rising frequency of extreme weather events harms the stems’ ability to stand the grass upright. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research are using CRISPR to produce shorter teff grasses that are less likely to bend or break even in wind or heavy rain. And the Gates Foundation is supporting the project with a $4.9 million grant.

There are many, many other such CRISPR projects taking place around the world — and while the tech won’t replace traditional plant breeding techniques, scientists say it holds a lot of promise for a strained food system.

Read: How CRISPR gene-editing technology could change the way we eat

Seed you on the other side

Here at Devex Dish, we’d be preaching to the choir if we told you just how important gene banks are to adapting to climate change. These vast collections of seeds in facilities across the world hold the genetic matter that differentiates wheat from mango, and wild crop varieties from those that are cultivated by farmers.

In short, these seed banks encapsulate crop diversity — and that’s their superpower, write the Crop Trust’s Geoffrey Hawtin and Stefan Schmitz in an opinion piece for Devex.

“Crop diversity provides a menu of options, allowing farmers to switch to more drought-resistant crops, to feed cows fodder that causes them to emit less methane, and adopt more sustainable practices,” they write. “It allows plant breeders to come up with modern varieties, and researchers to study how they work.”

And these gene banks give researchers, breeders, and farmers access to diversity anytime they need it. “They can breed new varieties, or perhaps return to communities heirloom varieties they once lost but which now perfectly match the climatic conditions,” the pair writes. Nations would do well to think of these facilities as treasure troves of genes to adapt our foods to tomorrow’s challenges.

Opinion: How gene banks act as guardians against climate uncertainty

Related: How hyperlocal seed banks are building climate-resilient agriculture

And don’t miss: Scientists behind ‘doomsday’ seed vault win World Food Prize

The road to N4G

It’s hard to believe that the next Nutrition for Growth, or N4G, Summit is only 10 months away. Early momentum is growing for the major pledging event to end malnutrition that is set to take place in Paris in March 2025, four years after the last one.

Monday was the first meeting of the newly formed N4G Leaders & Experts Council, an international advisory group that aims to advise the host country of France by integrating the perspectives of scientists and field experts in order to inform the negotiations and prioritize actions for them to take at the summit. Chairing the roughly 20-member group is Shawn Baker, chief program officer of Helen Keller Intl. This week the group met in Morocco during the spring meetings of the Paris Peace Forum. They will meet again periodically through next March and work closely with France’s Special Envoy for Nutrition and N4G Secretary General Brieuc Pont.

“We like his vision. It’s a vision that is making nutrition an indispensable part of the sustainable development process,” Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and a member of the N4G experts council, tells me. “That’s the key. Nutrition is not a nice-to-have, it’s not a marker of development. It’s a maker of development.”

Also, in case you missed it: The first pledge for N4G 2025 has been made. U.S.-based philanthropy Kirk Humanitarian has committed $125 million to support bringing multiple micronutrient supplements – or prenatal vitamins — to women in lower-income countries. In addition to improving women’s health, these vitamins provide key nutrients that can dramatically reduce the risk of infant mortality, stillbirths, and low-birth-weight babies, though most women in lower-income countries lack access to them.

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Kirk Humanitarian made the announcement late last month at an event alongside the French government and Gates Foundation. It coincided with the launch of a new global investment road map that aims to reach at least 260 million women with prenatal vitamins by the end of 2030. Kirk Humanitarian has partnered with the Gates Foundation, Children's Investment Fund Foundation, and the Eleanor Crook Foundation on the initiative.

The focus on drumming up N4G pledges to support multiple micronutrient supplements is aimed at addressing a major inequity between pregnant women in richer versus lower-income countries, according to Rahul Rawat, deputy director of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health at the Gates Foundation and a member of the N4G expert council.

“Ideally you’d be able to get all the nutritional needs met through a healthy, diverse, and safe diet,” Rawat tells me. “But even in the U.S. where women have access to micronutrient-fortified, micronutrient-rich foods, they also still often will take these supplements. And then contrast that to women in poorer or lower-income countries that have a pretty monotonous, micronutrient-deficiency diet — their base is already so low it’s impossible in many cases for them to meet their multiple micronutrient requirements need through their diet. So they absolutely need these multivitamins.”

Number munching

1 in 4

That’s the ratio of children under age 5 worldwide who are severely deprived of nutritious diets — equating to 181 million young children worldwide.

The figures come from UNICEF’s new report on the causes and impact of nutrition in early childhood. The agency defines child food poverty as consuming at most two food groups daily — typically milk along with a starchy food such as rice, wheat, or maize — out of the recommended eight. This deprivation of essential nutrients is tied to malnutrition and underdevelopment, and it could have lifelong consequences.

“This is an alarming reality,” Linda Shaker Berbari, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF and co-author of the report, tells Devex contributor Rebecca Holland. “It means these children are not consuming a healthy diet that would allow them to grow to their potential and develop.”

Among the reasons why children can’t access healthy diets are household income, lack of information about healthy food choices, and the abundance of cheap, unhealthy, ultra-processed foods.

Read: 1 in 4 young children deprived of nutritious food, UNICEF says

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Chew on this

The World Food Programme has paused the distribution of humanitarian aid via the U.S.-built pier in Gaza over safety concerns after one of the deadliest days of the war there. [AP News]

Farmers and researchers can now access the world’s largest database of weed species, which contains a comprehensive list of nearly 930 weed species found in Europe, western Asia, and North Africa, to gain insights into agricultural practices as far back as 8,000 BCE. [Agriculture Dive]

A civil society-led water conference in Indonesia, organized as a counter-conference to the World Water Forum, was shut down by a pro-government paramilitary group in what the attendees say is likely because of the forum’s anti-water privatization stance. [Devex]

About the author

Tania Karas

Tania Karas@TaniaKaras

Tania Karas is a Senior Editor at Devex, where she edits coverage on global development and humanitarian aid in the Americas. Previously, she managed the digital team for The World, where she oversaw content production for the website, podcast, newsletter, and social media platforms. Tania also spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon, covering the Syrian refugee crisis and European politics. She started her career as a staff reporter for the New York Law Journal, covering immigration and access to justice.