Latin American researchers use gene editing to develop new crops that benefit farmers and consumers

By Luis Ventura

December 2, 2020

Latin American farmers are partnering with scientists to create new crop varieties using gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-CAS 9 in a move to help the region realize its potential as a world power in food production.

The partnerships are an extension of the work that Latin American farmers have pursued for centuries as they dedicated their lives to safeguarding the region’s tremendous biodiversity while developing a wonderful variety of crops, such as potato, corn, beans, tomato, chili, cocoa and cotton, among others.

The new research work is currently concentrated in South American countries that are open to adopting gene-editing techniques. They’re providing funding for the research and creating a supportive environment for these new varieties by implementing biosafety frameworks that will allow for their quick adoption. Unfortunately, some countries in the region have fallen behind, including Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. They continue to debate the use of biotechnology, which prevents them from being open to adopting new breeding techniques that are being used to create improved crops varieties that are very important in the diet of Latin American people, such as potato, rice, tomato and corn.

As is reported by Andres Gatica, a researcher from the University of Costa Rica, these new techniques “could introduce advantageous traits for the improvement of crops, which could be available for the consumers in Latin America very soon” because the region is embracing the technology and researchers are already developing products from its use. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay have adopted legal frameworks to give legal clarity to the development of these new crop varieties.

One advantage of gene editing is its relatively easy application and low cost, which makes it useful in improving crops that are regionally important — as opposed to global commodities — and opens the door to research and development by universities and public sector institutions. Its use is expected to result in crops with traits that directly benefit farmers and consumers.

Gene-edited crops in Latin America

These new plant breeding technologies are being used to introduce novel traits or change those already present in wild plant populations or related species, resulting  in a more democratic approach to breeding crop varieties that benefit small farmers in developing countries. Institutes such as CIAT in Colombia and Cinvestav in Mexico, as well as universities across the region, are starting to work with tropical products such as banana, pineapple, rice, beans and cassava. Big companies declined to work with some of these crops in the past because they are difficult or time-consuming to breed.

Other gene editing research projects under way by institutes in Latin America include drought-resistant rice developed by the University of Costa Rica to help to mitigate the potential effect of climate change and achieve food security, the researchers report. Since a recent study showed that more than 80 percent of Ticos are in favor of gene editing for health and agricultural purposes, it is likely this new variety will be seen in Costa Rica’s fields very soon.

Disease-resistant rice and cassava is being developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, a nematode-resistant soybean and antioxidant-rich tomato are under way in Brazil and the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in Argentina is developing non-browning potatoes and high-yielding alfalfa. The non-browning potatoes are expected to reduce food waste among consumers and offer improved nutritional properties.

Researchers from the Federal University of Viçosa and the University of São Paulo in Brazil, partnering with colleagues from the United States and Germany, have created a new tomato crop from a wild plant using CRISPR-Cas9. The new variety yields 10 times the number of fruits as its wild relative and fruits that are three times larger. The lycopene content of the new antioxidant-rich tomato is more than twice as high as the wild parent and at least five times higher than conventional varieties.

“This new method allows us to start from scratch and begin a new domestication process all over again…we can preserve the genetic potential and the particularly valuable properties of wild plants and, at the same time, produce the desired features of modern crops in a very short time” said researcher Jörg Kudla from the University of Münster.

Adopting science-based regulations

So far, the region is opting to regulate crops produced through new breeding technologies (NBTs) as conventional crops so long as the final product does not contain a foreign DNA sequence in its genome. This status is determined by a competent authority, which conducts a case-by-case analysis of each new crop.

If this regulatory trend continues, Latin American countries may be increasingly receptive to adopting innovation in their fields through the use of gene-edited crops. These new varieties could help countries throughout the region face historical problems, such as poverty, food insecurity and dependence on food imports, by offering farmers and consumers an alternative.

As Martin Lima, a researcher from the National University of Quilmes in Argentina, noted in a recent study, “Unnecessary regulation of products developed through NBTs should be avoided and governments should adopt a harmonized approach for the approval of these products in order to facilitate their access to farmers and consumers.”

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