Last October 18th, Agriculture, as we know it today, changed dramatically. A cold press release issued in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) has unleashed the greatest biotechnology leap in agriculture since the Green Revolution.
I have eagerly awaited many weeks in anticipation of the thoughtful analysis from the prestigious analysts, the insightful articles of the mass media or the professional magazines. Absolute silence!
The forces of the greatest change in agricultural production that humanity has ever seen are on the move and big headlines and massive information are nowhere in sight. Perplexity!
Let’s recap … What’s wrong? What happened?
This is what happens
The world population will increase by 35 %% by 2050 to 9 billion.
To feed this population, world food production must double.
The capacity of the planet to provide food for all is in doubt (Climate change, water, sustainability, current productivity, available arable land, etc.)
Biotechnology is emerging as the best possible solution to avoid a global food crisis in the future. About this topic I have been writing in various posts of this blog over the past 2 years (See links: Biotechnology …, The news …, Agriculture …).
So far, this promising future that brings biotechnological advances has been somewhat abstract and ungraspable. But everything has become visible this past October 18. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has been made fully available for agricultural research purposes.
What is this? …and why is it so important?
The CRISPR-Cas9 technology opens up a new era of genetic engineering in which you can edit, correct, alter, the genome of any cell in an easy, fast, cheap and, above all, highly accurate way. (To know more about it see the great compilation article from Huerta digital)
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) concept does not apply here because this technology does not use genes from other species but rather simply manages to change the genes of any living being using the available gene map of its own specie. Basically, anything possible within the limits of the species genetics can be reproduced and bring to life.
The implications are incredible and include possibilities that will need ethical review by the scientific committees because it opens the door to the complete design of living organisms. We can design individuals on demand: height, muscle, eyes, skin, hair, organs, resistance to diseases and any other attribute. In short, we can design a superman or any other “super-organism”.
So far, this technology was split into different but complementary patent collections whose rights belong to two groups (Broad Institute and Dupont-Pioneer). Only Dupont-Pioneer was working on its agricultural potential with its limited set of patents, but on 18 October, both groups signed an agreement to give each other mutual access (to the two large sets of patents) and, in addition, provide free access to all academic research centers in the world and, also, to all non-profit research centers. As a result of the agreement, access to the entire set of patents is granted including the possibility for non-exclusive licensing for commercial use in agriculture.
I’m excited about what happened. In practice, universal access to technology that can change the world has been guaranteed. The world was already facing the likely events of a future dystopia of famines and wars for the control of food but these organizations have opened access to all those who can make a contribution to the most laudable goal that can exist: “to feed humanity”.
Just imagine for a moment of the implications that a corporation or a country had mastered this technology for its own good. In short, the first stone has been laid for prosperity and world harmony.
And only 2 weeks later (on November 2nd), Syngenta acquired one of these non-exclusive licenses for its plant breeding innovation toolbox. Bear in mind that Syngenta is a world key corporation in seeds and agricultural inputs that was recently bought by ChemChina (one of the largest Chinese companies) and is, in fact, a direct competitor of Dupont-Pioneer.
I hope that this article was able to bring to your attention the importance of what has just happened. The impact that it will have in our lifetime and the time of generations yet to come. And also, how facts like this, must reconcile us with our way of life, with our advanced societies, with our democratic institutions, with our academic institutions and even with the big corporations that are constantly accused of selfishness and hidden interests.
I myself saw with concern how the two sets of patents were being protected and controlled. So, now, I have only to express my deep gratitude, as the father of two small daughters, to the researchers (indeed two women) who initially developed the technology, to Broad Institute and Dupont-Pioneer.
Thank you for your contribution to the future of humanity.