The “SCNAT knowledge” web portal provides guidance. The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) and its network report the state of knowledge, based on sound scientific findings and in regards to Switzerland – for the attention of politics, administration, business, science and practice.more

Image: Tobias Günther, SNSF Scientific Image Competitionmore

Gene editing and agrifood systems

A science- and evidence-based Issue Paper on gene editing and agrifood systems by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

FAO (2022) Gene editing and agrifood systems
Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO)

Many of the agrifood systems that feed the world are severely impacted by global warming, extreme weather events, degradation of land and water resources, conflict, pandemics and demographic shifts. The effects have been particularly felt by the most vulnerable communities and individuals, many of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Disruptions to global agrifood systems have resulted in widespread hunger, malnutrition and inequality. Elimination of hunger and improvement in nutrition will require major transformations of agrifood systems in many parts of the world. Innovative applications of science and technology will play significant roles in the necessary transformations. Gene-editing technology, including CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), represents one of the most recent advances in genetics and its application to plant and animal breeding, and is set to contribute to improvements in many aspects of agricultural production. It has the potential to help satisfy the increasing global demand for food and agricultural products.

This science- and evidence-based Issue Paper on gene editing and agrifood systems presents a balanced discussion of the most pertinent aspects of gene editing, including the consequences for human hunger, human health, food safety, effects on the environment, animal welfare, socioeconomic impact and distribution of benefits. Intrinsic ethical concerns and issues of governance and regulation are addressed, and the roles of the public and private sectors, alone and in partnership, are summarized. Various scenarios are also presented for how gene editing might be used in the future to help transform agrifood systems.

Plant and animal breeding began through the mechanisms of natural selection and was directed and hastened through the activities of ancient agriculturalists, who, with no knowledge of the mechanisms of heredity, guided the processes of domestication through their selections of superior crops and animals. Scientific breeding, relying on knowledge of genetics and statistics, is only little over a century old and represented an improvement in speed and precision. Gene editing is the latest advance in this continuum, further increasing precision in crop and livestock breeding. CRISPR-Cas, for example, enables parts of a genome to be targeted precisely and cut. Insertions and deletions of genetic material at the cut site allow a germline to be developed that will result in a plant or animal expressing desired traits. Applications of gene editing are discussed in terms of their merits and demerits for various traits introduced into crops, livestock and fish that enhance production.

Gene editing has the potential to improve food security, nutrition and environmental sustainability but issues of safety must be considered. Identification of potential problems associated with new products is important to ensure their secure and sustainable use and satisfy consumers. The environment, biodiversity and human health could be negatively influenced by release of gene-edited products and therefore regulation must be enacted. Considerable information has been gained from previous experiences with transgenic plants and animals that is relevant to gene editing and its products. Gene editing can be inherently more precise than other methods used to date, which could reduce the likelihood of any harmful effects on human health and the environment.

The economic impact of gene editing will be determined by availability of products, particularly seeds, to small-scale producers, especially in low- and middle-income countries. It is possible that gene editing could reduce farm management costs, but impact at the household level will depend on numerous additional factors, many of which will be situation specific. Social and ethical concerns, including public trust in scientists and developers will be important, as will considerations of risk and benefit distributions, and questions about naturalness and differing cultural values. Intrinsic ethical concerns and animal welfare will also have to be considered when developing and deploying gene-edited products.

Governance aspects of gene-edited products include sanitary and phytosanitary regulations. To date, there has been a variety of approaches taken by national bodies, differing markedly in stringency. While many treat gene-edited products similarly to products derived from genetic modification, others do not. This has consequences for international trade and commerce. Governments must focus on taking a well thought out regulatory approach that attempts international harmonization to the extent possible. Following establishment of national regulatory protocols, other governance issues can be tackled, including trade impacts, intellectual property attributions and facilitation of access and distribution. At the multilateral level, the range of governance aspects can be addressed through various specialized mechanisms and bodies.

Gene editing research takes place in the private and public sectors, but their objectives and incentives can differ. The private sector generally prioritizes marketable products and profits, whereas the public sector is often less constrained and allows greater academic freedom. Issues of ownership of technologies and products, including those from gene editing, are seldom straightforward. Intellectual property considerations are as relevant to gene-editing procedures and products as they
are to other technologies. However, many of the aspirations of public and private organizations are compatible, and collaboration between the two sectors is possible and can be beneficial. The principal issue is to ensure that those for whom gene- editing technologies and products offer a solution to current constraints can afford and access them.

Gene editing is not a stand-alone technology and is not the only solution for the problems currently faced by agrifood systems. It should be integrated into plant
and animal breeding systems and used alongside other improved practices and technologies. The products of gene editing should be available to those that need them most, and the crops and livestock that are important to small-scale producers living in vulnerable environments must receive the attention they merit. As the Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna said, “One risk that is often overlooked is the real possibility that some of the advances we make in genome editing will benefit a small fraction of society. With new technologies this is often the case at first, so we have to consciously work from the start to make new cures and agricultural tools that are accessible and affordable.”

Previous modifications to agrifood systems, including the Green Revolution, have
not necessarily been easy, and not without trade-offs, but innovative applications
of science and technology have regularly resulted in substantial improvements in productivity. Gene editing may represent a further step towards the transformation of agrifood systems so that they can withstand better the current pressures and those they will face to an even greater extent in the future. It is important that interventions involving application of gene editing result in developments that are appropriate and sustainable and that are effective within the limits set by the environment.

FAO is ready to play a leading role in this important area of scientific and technological advance by providing a neutral forum for constructive dialogue and exchange of knowledge and by promoting discussion on the applications of gene editing to agriculture and food production.

Edition / Volume:
Standard identifier: ISBN: 978-92-5-137417-7

Source: FAO. 2022. Gene editing and agrifood systems. Rome.


  • Genome editing