It is like lighting fire if the crop variety is prone to rustfungi. It simply destroys crops,” Norman Borlaug, the father of Green Revolution to me in a ReasonInterview back in 2000. “One thing I would like to see in my lifetime is someone taking the block of rust resistance genes from rice and making it available to all other cereals.” Borlaug supported the use of modern biotechnology in order to accelerate the creation of disease-resistant crops with higher yields.
Borlaug’s Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) was founded in 2005. Borlaug, a plant breeder, managed to develop “super wheat” varieties that were resistant to rust using conventional breeding methods. Due to the strong opposition of influential antitechnology groups, BGRI researchers opted for conventional breeding.
Wheat is not only susceptible to rusts, but also other fungal infections. Powdery mildew can cause yield losses up to 45 per cent. Although fungicides are sometimes used by cereal farmers in the developed world to combat the pest, these measures can be too costly for many farmers across the globe.
Chinese researchers are making great strides in gene-editing to create resistant wheat varieties. Borlaug’s idea of adding new genes to other crops was not realized by the researchers. Instead, they used CRISPR gene editing techniques to enhance the performance and yields of existing fungus resistant genes in wheat.
“Another appeal of gene editing is that government regulators in several countries have recently made it easier for researchers and companies to study and commercialize plants made this way, whereas another method of engineering new traits into plants—transferring one species’ DNA into another—often requires extensive testing and lengthy reviews before approval,” notes Science.
It takes around 13 years to get a new variety of biotech crops through regulatory hurdles. This typically costs $136 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture exempted many gene-edited varieties of crop from the agency regulations in 2020. Therefore, new biotech-edited crops like the Chinese mildewresistant wheat should be available faster and easier to farmers. Of course, anti-biotech activists will oppose this happy prospect.