Opinion: Tony Conner on gene editing

Opinion: Tony Conner on gene editing

The Royal Society has released a discussion paper on the use of gene editing in the primary industries. Here Dr. Tony Conner, Forage Science Group Leader, shares his thoughts: 

"It is timely to have a public discussion about the merits or otherwise of gene editing, and potential applications and opportunities for New Zealand as a food producing nation. The genetic technologies are developing at such a pace internationally that it’s important we don’t get left behind, and as a society that we understand what gene editing is, and what it is not.

The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favour of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm. It puts the onus on us as scientists to communicate what the evidence actually shows.

My colleagues at AgResearch have already demonstrated what is possible with gene editing in both the plant and animal space. My colleagues in animal science have proven that they can use CRISPR technology to remove a major allergen from a cow’s milk, and this shows one path to enhancing our food supply and human health (this example is captured in the Royal Society discussion paper).

In the plant space, a lot has already been achieved over the decades in selective breeding to make our pastures perform better. This has meant production from our farms, that is the backbone of the NZ economy, has flourished. Billions of dollars have been saved through the targeted use of endophytes (a type of fungi that lives within grasses) to deter pasture pests, but there is also an issue with some endophytes being harmful to the livestock. Gene editing has the potential to remove that harm to livestock, while maintaining the huge benefits the endophytes offer.

My hope is that this discussion paper from the Royal Society will not only provoke discussion about gene editing, but also help lift the general understanding of this technology, with the evidence at the heart of the discussion."