Globally, most of the poor and undernourished people live in rural areas of developing countries, where they depend on agriculture as a source of food, income, and employment. International data show a clear association between low agricultural productivity and high rates of undernourishment (1). Global studies have also shown that rapid reduction of extreme poverty is only possible when the incomes of smallholder farmers are increased (2). Therefore, sustained improvement in agricultural productivity is central to socioeconomic development. Here, we argue that with careful deployment and scientifically informed regulation, new plant breeding technologies (NPBTs) such as genome editing will be able to contribute substantially to global food security.
Previously, conventional plant breeding through cross- and self-pollination strategies played a major role in improving agricultural productivity. Moreover, the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops by smallholder farmers has led to higher yields, lower pesticide use, poverty reduction, and improved nutrition (2). Nevertheless, so far only a few developing and emerging economies—such as China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Africa—have embraced GM crops. Even though three decades of research show that GM crops are no more risky than conventional crops (3), many countries in Africa and Asia are hesitant to promote the use of GM crops, largely because of erroneously perceived risks and fears of losing export markets to Europe.
In the meantime, NPBTs have emerged. These technologies may allay fears associated with GM crops. For example, recent advances in genome editing allow the alteration of endogenous genes to improve traits in crops without transferring transgenes across species boundaries. In particular, CRISPR-Cas has emerged as one of the foremost systems with which to edit the crop genome, with rapidly increasing agricultural applications in major cereals such as rice, wheat, and maize and other food security crops such as banana and cassava (4). Because of its low cost, genome editing can also be used to improve orphan crops such as local fruits, vegetables, and staple crops that can play an important role for healthy diets. The use of foreign DNA in transgenic GM crops is the main reason for their heavy regulation. Hence, the absence of transgenes in genome-edited crops could lower the costs of the regulatory procedures and thus speed up innovation, increase competition in the seed industry, and make improved seeds more affordable for farmers in developing countries (2). The lack of technical, regulatory, and communication capacities to handle transgenic GM technologies locally has contributed to limited public acceptance and adoption (5). Scientific and sociopolitical developments are not always a continuum, which is true in developed and developing countries alike. Therefore, a renewed effort and strategy is necessary to facilitate the use and adoption of genome-edited crops and other NPBTs that have much potential to contribute to sustainable development. Learning lessons from the past, the strategy should be based on transparent communication, training of researchers and other stakeholders in the innovation system, and efficient, informed regulation (see the box).