Accelerating Agriculture

Eradicating hunger is second on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals list. Food security is one of the world's most pressing issues, and the journey toward wider access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food is driven by rigorous research, but also shrouded in controversy.

To that end, agriculture giant Monsanto has licensed CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technology from the Broad Institute for use in seed development, the company announced on Thursday. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a way of editing DNA, a technology that is able to snip specific parts of the genetic code in order to modify the characteristics of an organism.

“Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture,” said Issi Rozen, Chief Business Officer of Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Monsanto's partner organization in the CRISPR agreement.

Gene editing in crops could makes food production more convenient and beneficial. Accelerated crop growth, resistance to pests and inclement weather, and higher nutritional benefit could be made possible.

Evolutionary Hijacking?

The agreement between Monsanto and Broad Institute comes with many restrictions linked to long-standing criticism surrounding genetically-modified organisms.

Monsanto cannot use the technology for the gene drive, a controversial technique where geneticists force a trait to an organism and its line of descent. While maintaining positive traits may sound promising, gene drives may doom other species to extinction. Experimentation with this technology has shown many unpredictable results.

The company was also prohibited from the creation of sterile seeds. In this manner, the genetically altered crops cannot bear fertile seeds, so farmers would have to keep buying them from seed companies.

Critical ecological balance is so closely linked to what and how we plant and sow. In the pursuit of sustainable and accessible food supply, studies on genetic modification are more imperative than ever.

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