Stuck Between a Rock and Two Hard Places By: Mitch Rowland, M.S. and Casey L. Bradley, Ph.D.

Is Gene Editing the Next Frontier?

Moderator: Bill Even, CEO, National Pork Board

Panelists: Evan Grusenmeyer, University of Missouri; Mike Paustian, Pork Producer; and Randy Riley, GoldenSun Insights

Historically, agriculture has effectively kept pace with the exponential human population growth. First, it was with the tractor that helped increase agricultural production. As time passed, these tractors got larger, implements became more efficient, and irrigation became more accessible than decades previous. Now, GPS-guided equipment is widely used, especially in crop production. Soon, agriculture will be operated by fully autonomous equipment. Similar improvements have occurred in the living component of agriculture, whether plants or animals. However, can this continuous improvement continue to meet the exponentially increasing population set to exceed 10 billion people by 2050? Gene editing could be our next frontier in solving this taxing problem for the future of food security.

With the mere mention of gene editing, the agricultural industry is beginning to find itself between a rock and two hard places – cheaper food and sustainable food production. That is because this technology has a massive stigma surrounding itself. Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs tend to split people’s opinions. They are great if it helps someone live a longer and healthier life but terrible if it is the food we eat. The ability to solve food security, water and land conservation, food wastage, and fossil fuel use is right at our fingertips through gene editing, thus the timely session by the National Pork Board on gene editing at World Pork Expo 2023.

Getting past the stigma of GMOs

Nearly 100 years ago, a single U.S. farmer fed about four people. Forty years later, that number went up to 73 people. Today that number has more than doubled to 155 people fed by a single farmer in the U.S. Not only has a single farmer been able to feed significantly more people, but they are also doing it with 10% less land. What a remarkable achievement that by the general public seems to go unnoticed or unappreciated. The next giant leap will be due to technology and gene editing. However, consumers are still frightened by the talk of “GMOs”. This mindset stems from the Monsanto (Bayer) lawsuits around glyphosate, designated as a probable human carcinogen and a GMO soybean or corn being the same thing.

However, GMOs are quite common in crop production, with 94% of soybeans and 92% of corn grown in the U.S. being considered GMOs. At the same time, there are only two animal species approved for consumption in the U.S. One is a salmon approved for human consumption in 2015, including a growth gene from chinook salmon and a promoter from Ocean Pout. This fish has a 1:1 feed conversion ratio (FCR), which becomes a sustainable protein source. The other approved GMO animal species, a pig, was approved in 2020. This GMO is the first ever approved by the FDA for both consumption and therapeutic use. The simple deletion of a gene that produces alpha-gal sugar on the cell membrane of swine now gives those allergic to alpha-gal sugar (and thus red meat) one of life’s best luxuries – bacon. As if those allergic to alpha-gal now being able to enjoy bacon wasn’t enough, they could soon receive an organ transplant if needed, which puts Dr. Bradley’s heart at ease in case her husband would ever need a heart valve or skin graft in his future and potentially real bacon again on the menu.

While the everyday consumer could buy into GMO pigs saving lives, the tagline around a 1:1 FCR does not speak to them. They ask why this cannot be done naturally, as we have been genetically selecting for desired traits for centuries. However, this method has taken the poultry industry nearly 40 years to go from a 3-pound chicken with an FCR of 2.3 to just over a 5-pound chicken with a 1.5 FCR. While impressive, we don’t have another 40 years to meet the needs of the growing population. Moving away from the food security piece and looking at agriculture plus GMOs from a sustainability aspect, we can see that it is a cascading effect.

During the Pork Academy, the National Pork Board addressed the key components needed to implement gene editing into our industry successfully. The main insights by the panel included a resounding hurdle of the regulatory body to bring more products to market, transparency to the consumer, and the proper and consistent messaging needed by all vested parties to the consumer. The Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture was one organization mentioned that provides a positive platform to help with new GMO agricultural developments. Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board, stressed the need for producers and the industry to promote different product choices to our consumers without throwing others under the bus. Additionally, lessons learned from the produce sector from Randy Riley, President of GoldenSun Insights, were invaluable in helping producers shape their messaging to what matters for the consumer rather than the producer.

In closing, the best way to change a consumer’s mindset happens in a one-to-one conversation in unexpected places. If you find the opportunity to put in a plug for gene editing as a win-win for society and the swine industry, please find Evan Grusenmeyer’s applicable and simplified definitions to aid you in conversation. But remember that a PRRS-resistant pig would be invaluable to pork producers; why should the consumers care? We would use fewer antibiotics, which resonates with them better than a producer’s profit margins.

Genetic Modification Function “What it does.”
Transgenic Transfer Gene Copy/Paste
Cisgenic Extra copy of a gene Duplicate
Knockout Removal of a gene function Delete
Mutate Change Spelling/Punctuation
Introgress Change Version Thesaurus