Enlarging Asia’s Food Basket With Gene Editing

Food security expert Professor Paul Teng talks to Asian Scientist Magazine about how gene editing technologies like CRISPR could help to address Asia’s growing demand for food.

AsianScientist (Jun. 1, 2020) – Cutting across not just geographical but also cultural, social and political divides, food security is a global problem that must be solved by all countries, whether developing or developed. By 2050, the global demand for food will be at least 60 percent greater than today, and the world must find enough food to feed nine billion people.

Asia Pacific region is the largest and one of the most diverse in the world, with significant variations in climate, levels of development and urban/rural population distribution. It is home to 60 percent of the world’s population, including the two most populous countries in the world, China and India.

The variations across the region also result in differences in agricultural production capacity, making some countries more vulnerable to food security risks than others. According to the Global Food Security Index, while its emerging economies are growing rapidly, the food security gap between developed and developing countries remains wide.

Without addressing food security, the region faces risks including malnutrition, hunger and even conflict. The United Nations made ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture all part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with ending hunger as the second of its 17 SDGs. With the SDG target of 2030 edging closer and much progress yet to be achieved, natural scientists and economists are looking at innovative solutions to the issue.

“We need to have a sustained supply of affordable food, feed and fiber. And to me, modern technologies are the only way to go,” said Professor Paul Teng, dean and managing director at the National Institute of Education International.

The emerging gene editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9, could help agriculture sectors become more productive, he told Asian Scientist Magazine.

Bracing against a net food deficit

Teng began his career in US universities and in the late 1980’s joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where he led cross-ecosystem research efforts towards addressing global rice supply and demand issues.

Today, he serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, while continuing to advise agricultural education institutions on food issues.

Early on, he recognized that more than just agricultural innovation is needed to tackle food security issues: one must also have a deep understanding of the cultural dimensions involved, such as convincing smallholder farmers throughout Asia to adopt new technologies.

“Roughly 87 percent of the world’s smallholder farmers are in Asia, and that’s roughly 500 million. That’s a lot of smallholder farmers!” he quipped. This is important, he noted, because smallholder farmers grow 70 percent of the world’s food.

As Teng explained, much of food production goes to animal feed, the need for which is spurred by the global demand for meat. In Asia alone, the hunger for animal protein has taken a heavy toll on farmers.

It may come as a surprise to many that the humble soybean, that most quintessential of Asian foods, doesn’t come from Asian farmers for the most part.

“Right now, Asia as a continent imports about 70 percent of the world’s soybeans, mainly from the western hemisphere,” Teng said.

The same is true for other crops, most of which are destined to feed our livestock rather than going straight to our mouths. “About 40 percent of the world’s corn comes to Asia.

“We just can’t get enough soybean and corn,” Teng shared. “And Indonesia is the world’s largest importer of wheat for food. This is a very vulnerable dependency.”

It’s a trend that won’t let up anytime soon, and Teng is worried about this continued dependence on food imports from the west. “Going forward for the next ten years, Asia is going to be at a net food deficit region. We’re going to continue importing food from the west,” he lamented. There is no doubt in Teng’s mind that biotechnology will have to come in at some point if we want to address Asia’s food security issues.

A CRISPR future

“For Southeast Asia to want to become competitive in food production, it has to adopt modern technologies,” Teng told Asian Scientist Magazine.

Chief among these of course is CRISPR gene editing technology, which has been in the spotlight of scientific research and public imagination ever since its mechanism was unraveled in 2012.

CRISPR uses a scissor-like protein to cut specific portions of an organism’s DNA with unprecedented accuracy. The technology can be used to cut out or splice specific portions of DNA, much like how a movie director might edit a film. Extending this analogy, the end result is the same body of work, albeit precisely altered at a particular segment on a film reel.

In contrast, standard genetic modification (GMO) techniques introduce genetic material from other organisms—a process which, though proven to be scientifically sound, comes across to some as unnatural.

A way in which the public may be better primed to welcome the benefits of CRISPR is by highlighting its immediate benefits to consumers, Teng suggested. For this, he made a distinction between ‘input traits’ that benefit farmers directly, and ‘output traits’ that benefit consumers directly.

Input traits include herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and draught tolerance—traits that appeal to farmers because they help ensure crop yields. Output traits, on the other hand, include traits such as improved taste and longer shelf life—attributes that shoppers would find appealing, and make them more likely to buy a product.

Output traits resonate much better with consumers “because it’s a direct benefit to them,” Teng said. And while input traits still indirectly benefit consumers by helping ensure supply and thereby keeping prices low, these benefits are not immediately apparent.

“Consumers don’t see the direct benefit [to them],” Teng said.

A need for an Asian dialogue

And here’s where the battle for public perception is key. There is less of a potential for stigma towards gene editing—CRISPR specifically, seeing as it is front and center in the public eye when it comes to the latest biotechnology—because it builds on an organism’s naturally occurring genetic material to produce benefits that are immediately apparent for farmers and consumers.

“[CRISPR] gene editing is being seen now as a possible way around some of the battles in public acceptance and regulatory approvals that plagued GMOs,” Teng said.

But the problem is that government regulators have yet to even just talk about, much less discuss, the implications of CRISPR gene editing in agriculture. Thankfully, that’s beginning to change.

“We’re at the stage now where, in terms of communication, we need to overcome the knowledge deficit,” Teng said.

For more information on the challenges and solutions to address food security, check out Global Food Security Index 2019

Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of Corteva Agriscience.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Unsplash.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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