With Gene Editing, Bayer Has Learnt to Curb Its Enthusiasm

Bayer AG is harvesting its first-ever gene-edited corn. Britain is cutting red tape around the powerful CRISPR technology that enables a plant’s DNA to be tweaked. You’d think it would be happy days for an executive fighting gene-editing’s corner.

“I always temper my optimism,” Ty Vaughn, senior vice president and head of Plant Biotechnology at Bayer, said in an interview with chemicalESG.

Having spent about seven years in regulatory affairs, including at Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, Vaughn is not one to get carried away. Around the time he emerged from Colorado State University with a PhD in Ecological Genetics, protests were erupting in the UK and Europe against the planting of GMO. Monsanto, the face of GMO, would be labeled one of the most hated American companies.

Advocates of CRISPR regard the scissor-like tool as one of the most significant biotechnology breakthroughs in recent times, yet gene-editing has yet to take off properly in agriculture. The topic of DNA-doctored food remains fiercely debated internationally. Outside the US, many governments lump it together with GMO from a regulatory standpoint.

But for those snipping away at unwanted genes, the UK’s plans are at least a step in the right direction; a sign that a line is increasingly being drawn between gene-editing and GMO. As a first step, rules around R&D will be relaxed in England, followed by a roadmap on how such crops could be brought to market. A wholesale review of GMO — where a plant’s genetics are altered by adding foreign genes — will be the finale.

Genome editing has gained traction in some parts. Japan has given the go-ahead. Already on sale there is a Sicilian Rouge tomato with doctored DNA to raise levels of an amino acid that helps lower blood pressure. Work is also underway on a potato.

Europe is a particular hold out. Having launched a review similar to the UK, the European Commission is expected to loosen restrictions in time.

Easing rules around R&D can generate savings in development time for a technology that creates crop strains in the fraction of the time taken via traditional breeding methods. But a global coordinated framework for gene-edited crops remains a way off. But while the idea that “all of a sudden things will move fast” is too much for Vaughn, keeping the debate alive is a positive.

“Anytime there is movement towards having that dialogue and keeping this in front of regulators and policymakers is a good thing,” Vaughn said. “The worst thing that could happen is people stop talking about it.”

Studies in Japan have shown that although the public has a more positive perception of gene-editing versus GMO, the difference was much smaller than between conventional breeding and genetic modification, according to a write up in Nature.

Bayer is ramping up its activity, nonetheless, banking on a USP that includes dramatically shortening the time to produce new crop varieties compared with the traditional breeding route. There will be more field trials in the US next year and Bayer is planning to collaborate with others as it focuses on specific number of crops, Vaughn said. Projects in the pipeline include a banana resistant to the TR4 fungus and varieties of soya beans.

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