By Sandy K. Johnson
If everything goes according to plan, DuPont Pioneer will roll out the first CRISPR seeds in 2020. To avoid the controversy that has dogged GMOs and Big Agriculture for two decades, DuPont Pioneer is already working on its strategy to educate the public about the gene-editing technology.
At a day-long seminar for National Press Foundation journalists, DuPont Pioneer executives laid the groundwork with a tutorial about the long history of altering plants as a way to thwart weeds, pests and drought as well as increase yields and improve taste.
The first corn plants were domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago, yielding approximately 5 bushels an acre. Today, the national average corn yield is 160 bushels an acre. The record yield is 532 bushels an acre.
What happened in between? People started fiddling with nature. Early adapters learned to use pollen to create new strains of plants. Then real science stepped in with increasingly sophisticated techniques for “breeding” new varieties. In 1996, the first genetically modified organisms were created. The uproar has yet to quiet, with opposing factions either declaring GMOs safe for human consumption or Frankenfood.
Ag companies are still smarting from their poor management of the science and public relations of GMOs. Thus, DuPont Pioneer is treading gently into its CRISPR-Cas innovation, initially using the new gene-editing technology for a niche crop called waxy corn – not mainstream corn consumed by people or livestock.
Nandini Krishnamurthy, senior research manager, described the gene editing in journalist terms – how an editor might edit a reporter’s prose by excising or substituting a word here or there. No harm done; final product much improved.
Neal Gutterson, vice president of research and development at DuPont Pioneer, said the company would seek public buy-in for CRISPR products by earning their trust. “We know we have to earn the trust of our farmers but also the consumers,” he said.
“It’s not about science. It’s more about social science than science, ultimately about getting social license for the technology,” Gutterson said. He said biotech is more efficient and higher quality than current methods.
As a start, DuPont Pioneer has created a website aimed at education called crisprcas.pioneer.com.
To allay fears about genomes and DNA, DuPont Pioneer told journalists during a luncheon panel that the items they had just eaten contained 93 miles of DNA, while CRISPR edits just a few lines of DNA at a time.