This month marked one year since the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down around the world. The anniversary wasn’t exactly a celebratory milestone, but it has prompted many of us to reflect deeply on the events — and lack thereof — of the past 12 months. The one-year mark also sparked endless think pieces about our “lost year” and our changed perception of time.
But through it all, the world kept spinning and progress marched on. This was particularly true in the realm of agricultural biotechnology, which recorded some significant breakthroughs while the pandemic held our attention in a vice grip.
1. Argentina approves GM wheat
In October 2020, Argentina became the first country in the world to approve a strain of genetically modified wheat. The nation’s science and technology ministry approved HB4 drought-resistant wheat developed by the biotech firm Bioceres SA. It’s an important crop, because unlike GM soy and corn, wheat is grown primarily for human consumption.
Most of Argentina’s wheat exports go to Brazil and commercialization of HB4 will only begin if and when Brazilian officials give their approval. Could this be the biggest thing to happen to wheat since Norman Borlaug?
2. Oxitec allowed to release ‘friendly’ GM mosquitoes in US
Genetically modified mosquitoes were approved for release in the Florida Keys under a pilot project intended to show that GM mosquitoes are a viable alternative to spraying insecticides.
The project uses the “Friendly” mini-capsule technology developed by the UK-based genetics company Oxitec. The technology works by inserting a self-limiting gene into non-biting male mosquitos that then seek out and mate with wild females. The offspring produced will die before reaching adulthood, thus reducing the population of the dangerous and invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue, yellow fever and other diseases.
The “Friendly” technology was previously used successfully in Brazil. Now, under the permits granted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GM mosquitos can be released in the US. The pilot project includes the Florida Keys and select areas of Texas.
“There is broad consensus amongst public health officials in the US that a new generation of safe, targeted and cost-effective vector control tools are needed urgently to combat the growing threat posed by Aedes aegypti without impacting the ecosystem,” Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen said in a press release.
3. Kenya green lights GM crops
Driven by the desire to expand its agricultural and textile sectors, build its economy and boost food security, Kenya has done an about-face on GM crops, which it banned in 2012. The impressive performance of GM insect-resistant Bt cotton on some Kenyan farms has prompted the government to permit full commercialization of the crop. Kenya is also making progress with GM maize, conducting the National Performance Trials that are key to adoption. It’s likely farmers will have access to the GM maize seeds later this year.
4. China embraces biotech to improve food security
China started 2020 with the announcement that two GM corn varieties and one GM soybean variety had passed biosafety evaluations, in what was seen as a crucial step in moving the world’s most populous country closer to the commercialization of those two GM crops.
By the end of the year, Chinese officials were calling for “technological breakthroughs in seeds” that could “turn the seed industry around”. China’s line on GMOs, both among policymakers and the general public, has been quite conservative over the years. Although GM corn and rice varieties were granted biosafety certificates over a decade ago, they have never reached commercialization, in part because of resistance to GM technology.
But after the pandemic caused supply chain disruptions and China’s reliance on American soy was put in stark relief by trade tensions, Beijing seems to be taking a new approach to ag biotech.
“The tone about the GM technology seems to be changing, it is no longer about how much it will hurt human health, but how big its impact will be on grain security once restrictions are lifted,” Zhang Xin, an analyst at GLOCON Agritech Co-Innovation Institute, said in December according to the South China Morning Post.
5. The EU (maybe) softens its anti-GM stance
Just days before we all decamped to our couches for lockdown, the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) blasted the EU’s GMO regulations as “no longer fit for purpose” and called for a “radical reform” of the bloc’s approach.
Seven months later, the door to adopting GM crops in Europe seemed to open a crack when talks got underway on a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A spokesperson for the European Commission told the Alliance for Science that “biotechnologies, together with other innovative technologies, may play a role in increasing sustainability and bringing benefits for society as a whole, provided they are safe for consumers and the environment”.
Karen Melchior, a Danish MEP and member of Renew Europe who voted against the CAP reform because it doesn’t move Europe toward a greener agricultural future, told us she’s open to the EU rethinking its stance on GM crops.
“[Adopting GM crops] is not a problem for me,” she said. “I need to be sure they have been created to be more climate-resilient and environmentally friendly. If that’s the case, I’m all for using the technology that we have on hand.”
Europe may have to rethink its GMO approach further after more evidence emerged that its current policies are hurting the environment. The European Environment Agency released a “State of Nature in the EU” report in October that concluded that “current agricultural practices are by far the most dominant driver affecting habitats and species” and that unsustainable farming and forestry practices, along with urban sprawl and pollution are to blame for the “serious, continuing decline” of Europe’s biodiversity.
Just last month, a new scientific analysis revealed that Europe’s refusal to permit farmers to grow GE crops has led to the avoidable emission of 33 million tons of climate-damaging carbon dioxide, the equivalent to 7.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the entire European agricultural sector.
6. COVID vaccines use genetic engineering
After 12 months of the coronavirus dictating nearly every facet of our lives, it’s worth pointing out that genetics are why we now see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the COVID vaccines being injected into arms by the millions use genetic engineering, and all of them use genetics more broadly.
The BioNTech/Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines both use mRNA. What is that, exactly? The Alliance’s Mark Lynas explains:
Basically, it’s a single-stranded nucleic acid molecule that carries a genetic sequence from the DNA in the cell’s nucleus into the protein factories — called ribosomes — that sit outside the nucleus in the cellular cytoplasm.
That’s what the “m” in mRNA stands for: messenger. Messenger RNA just carries instructions for the assembly of proteins from the DNA template to the ribosomes. (Proteins do almost everything that matters in the body.) That’s it.
This is useful for vaccines because scientists can easily reconstruct specific genetic sequences that encode for proteins that are unique to the invading virus. In the COVID case, this is the familiar spike protein that enables the coronavirus to enter human cells.
What mRNA vaccines do is prompt a few of your cells near the injection site to produce the spike protein. This then primes your immune system to build the antibodies and T-cells that will fight off the real coronavirus infection when it comes.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, meanwhile, injects a genetically-engineered virus into your body. While that might sound like fodder for the skeptics and conspiracy theorists, it’s actually really cool. Again, Lynas explains how it works:
The Oxford vaccine uses what is called a “viral vector” approach. The scientific team took an adenovirus — a type of pathogen that causes a common cold — and spliced in the same spike protein genetic sequence from the coronavirus.
The adenovirus simply serves as the vehicle to get the genetic sequence into your cells. That’s why it’s called a “viral vector” after all. Viruses have been designed by billions of years of evolution precisely to figure out ways to sneak into host cells.
Note that genetic engineering is an essential part of the development process. Firstly, vector viruses are stripped of any genes that might harm you and actually cause disease. Genes that cause replication are also removed, so the virus is harmless and cannot replicate.
Then the coronavirus spike protein genes are added — a classic use of recombinant DNA.
7. Scientific American urges end to GMO debate
Scientific American ended the year with a strong, thoughtful article that emphasized the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops and their role in addressing climate change impacts on agriculture. As the articles notes:
For too long the rhetoric on genetic engineering in agriculture has been polarized, and reasoning has been clouded by emotion instead of based on evidence. There is fault on both sides for the existing antagonism. Immensely successful marketing strategies have been based on inciting fear and distributing false information. Large corporations have sown mistrust. Promises were made that were never realized.
But in 2020, the ‘GMO vs. organic’ debate is outdated and unproductive.”