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[BANGKOK] South-East Asia, a major agricultural region with a regulated approach to genetically modified (GM) crops, is faced with a new debate on whether the relatively new technique of genome editing should be subject to the same safety and labelling regulations as GM organisms.

The issue figured at the 15th Solanaceae Conference, held 30 September— 4 October in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Nuttha Potapohn, dean, faculty of agriculture, Chiang Mai University, said currently there are no specific regulations in any of the 10-member countries of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) on genome editing.

“To meet the food needs of 2050, we have to double production of staples like wheat, rice and maize and we can’t do that at current rates of plant breeding. So, the hope is that genome editing technology will allow scientists to feed the world”

Matthew Willman, Cornell University

Genome editing, the replacement of one DNA sequence with another within a species, is more precise than traditional genetic modification, which involves the insertion of DNA taken from one organism into another. It can be applied to a wide range of fields not just on breed improvement but also to new medicines and treatments for incurable diseases.

While the US department of agriculture announced in March that it has no plans to regulate genome editing, the European Court of Justice ruled on 25 July that genome editing counts as genetic engineering, making it liable to follow the strict safety and labelling laws governing GM organisms.

Thailand disallows GM technology for commercial farming. But Potapohn says the country should develop expertise in genome editing to retain a competitive edge, especially when rivals like China have few restrictions and are advancing in the technology. She says that several Thai scientists have trained in the new technology in the US.

Matthew Willman, director, Plant Transformation Facility, Cornell University, insists that genome editing is different from GM technology since “we are not using foreign DNA” to improve crops. He says the technology allows scientists to speed up traditional plant breeding — which takes decades or centuries of painstaking breeding to select the best characteristics and filter out undesirable ones. “This process is now cut to just a few years,” he says.

“Population is growing incredibly fast and we are facing global warming and as scientists we have to find ways to improve crops as rapidly as possible,” he says. “To meet the food needs of 2050, we have to double production of staples like wheat, rice and maize and we can’t do that at current rates of plant breeding. So, the hope is that genome editing technology will allow scientists to feed the world.”

Willman says the European Court’s decision favours large companies since only they have the resources to comply with the very stringent requirements and for the massive marketing needed, which is why transgenic crops like maize, soybean and cotton are controlled by big multinational firms. Darush Struss, biotechnology and molecular plant breeding manager at East-West Seed, agrees that the Court’s decision will limit the role of small firms and the academic community, which carries out much of the independent research.

Struss believes that since countries in the region like Thailand do not have regulations or guidelines on gene editing, it is possible that products of the new technology may get treated like GM organisms.  
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.