Gene editing has ‘limitless potential’ to reduce malnutrition, says global food expert

by Joseph Opoku Gakpo

September 9, 2021

Gene editing is a tool with unlimited potential to help reduce malnutrition globally, said Dr. Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

The world needs the technology because billions of people are struggling to access the nutritious meals required to stay healthy, Haddad said.

The leader of GAIN, a Switzerland-based foundation launched by the United Nations in 2002 to reduce malnutrition worldwide, made his remarks during an Alliance for Science-hosted Food Systems Summit independent dialogue. Haddad also chairs the upcoming Summit’s Action Track 1, which is charged with ensuring access to safe and nutritious food.

“The potentials seem limitless in terms of what can be done with gene editing and CRISPR… it’s going to take brave, bold activist governments to make that a reality,” Haddad said.

The dialogue was one of thousands being held across the world ahead of the UN’s Sept. 23 Food Systems Summit, which will discuss the future of the world’s food systems. The meeting was deemed necessary because the world currently is not on track to meet the zero-hunger target and other sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030 unless drastic actions are taken. Participants will deliberate on and launch bold, new actions to help deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on achieving zero hunger.

Haddad noted that 3 billion people worldwide cannot afford a healthy diet and 1.5 billion cannot afford a diet that is minimally nutritious, according to the United Nations State of Food Insecurity Report.

Data from GAIN show that 1 of every 3 people suffer from some type of malnutrition. An estimated 821 million people are unable to access enough calories to avoid chronic hunger. About 2 billion people globally do not consume sufficient vitamins and minerals to support healthy growth. An estimated 1 in 5 deaths globally are linked to poor diets. Every year, about 11 percent of the gross domestic product in Africa and Asia is lost to malnutrition.

Dr. Cecilia Acuin, associate professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition and Food at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, told the dialogue that many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to deal with the challenge of malnutrition. Though the Philippines is using conventional plant breeding methods, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and other tools to fortify food crops with improved nutrients, gene editing will help speed up these processes, she said.

“IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) is trying to find out what nutritional benefits can be derived from rice varieties that are available in the gene bank. If we will wait for conventional breeding to propagate these traits in the rice germplasm, it will take us hundreds of years. But if we can use gene editing technologies, this can reach populations and consumers much faster,” she explained.

Patience Koku, CEO of Replenish Farms in Nigeria, said the upcoming summit should be ready to acknowledge gene editing technology as one tool that can help improve agriculture.

“I think the Food Systems Summit is an opportunity for us all to get a voice in there that gene editing has a lot of benefits for the world and Africa in particular,” she said.

“We are saying gene editing has the potential to produce crops that can be nitrogen-efficient and can increase production. Now, I’m linking production to nutrition. Because when there is scarcity of food, there will be malnutrition,” Koku said.

“For the first time in our country’s history, we were buying cowpea, which is the poor man’s protein, for ridiculous amounts of money and most people could not afford it. It was because we had a bad crop,” she told the dialogue.

She noted that gene editing can improve production and fortify food with additional nutrients. For example, many people eat only sweet potato as a meal. If the sweet potatoes were fortified with protein or additional vitamins, “it will help greatly. I live in a country where I see stunting every day,” Koku added.

About 151 million children under the age of five have stunted physical and cognitive development due to malnutrition, according to GAIN data, and children who are stunted at age three do significantly worse in school and are more likely to live in poverty as adults. Meanwhile, 45 percent of all deaths of children under age three are linked to malnutrition-induced stunting and wasting. Poor diets are linked with about 22 percent of adult mortalities.

Ambassador Dr. Miguel J. Garcia-Winder, former Undersecretary of Agriculture in Mexico, observed that gene editing could potentially have an impact on the availability and quality of food. But he said it will have only limited impacts on efforts to ensure access to healthy foods unless other socioeconomic issues are dealt with.

“Gene editing is only one of the potential tools to address the issues of nutrition security,” he said. “But by itself is insufficient to address the total issue of nutritional security…There are social, economic, cultural and environmental issues about the technology which also need to be addressed.”

Dr. Tom Adams, co-founder and CEO of biotech company Pairwise, told the dialogue that gene editing is an emerging technology that “gives a lot of power in genetics to do precise things.” Pairwise is a United States-based company using gene editing to improve fruits and vegetables so people can achieve healthier diets.

“Gene editing eliminates the randomness of breeding, making rapid advances in plant breeding possible,” he explained. “To make a pit-less cherry, normal breeding would take more than 100 years, but gene editing will take less than five years. Gene editing will provide a broad array of benefits to agriculture and food production, boost nutrient content and remove seeds and pits, making healthy food easier for all to eat.”

Other potential benefits of gene editing include improving crops to adapt to changing environments, extending the shelf life of crops and adapting varieties to enable year-round production, among others.

Image: Children wait in line for a meal at a school in Kenya. Photo: Shutterstock/JLwarehouse