Opinion: Gene editing holds key to better crops and vaccines

Last month, I drove my old mum to Harwich hospital, where she was given a Covid-19 vaccination.

There were a couple of hours of hanging around, but what’s a couple of hours to wait while your mum is given an injection that protects her from something that could well kill her?

About the author

Guy SmithGuy Smith
Opinion columnist, Farmers Weekly

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast, which is officially recognised as the driest farm in the UK.  He has held the position of deputy president at the NFU and served on the boards of FACE, HGCA and Landskills New Entrants Committee.

Read more articles by Guy Smith

To while away the time, I browsed the internet to read up on the history of vaccination. Interestingly, it starts with the dairy industry in the late 18th century in England.

See also: Gene editing – the pros and cons for farming

Edward Jenner, the father of the science of vaccination, noticed dairymaids seemed to have immunity to the deadly smallpox because of their exposure to cowpox.

It was the start of a journey that eventually led to the mass vaccination programmes that have saved billions of people from life-shortening and disabling conditions.

Curiously, Jenner’s work was met with hostility from those who feared it was full of hidden dangers. He was accused of meddling in matters too sacred for science.

There were cartoons in the popular press of people growing udders as a result of his treatments. Fortunately for humanity, his science overcame populist superstition.

Jenner’s initial struggles in the face of his doubters should be remembered today, as vaccination provides the only route out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the anti-vaxxers who wanted to stop Jenner in his tracks have their modern-day equivalents, these science sceptics aren’t influential enough to stop my mum getting her jab.

Interestingly, just as modern vaccines produced through genetic engineering are helping solve the Covid crisis, another debate about gene editing (GE) in plant and animal breeding has been sparked by the launch of a consultation on the issue.

To my mind, the arguments against GE in plant breeding are as weak as the arguments against GE in vaccination.

While I agree science, when misused, can do harm, that is not grounds to reject all science-based innovation as “meddling”.

Also, I accept that scientific research and the useful tools it produces tend to fall into the hands of large corporations.

But that is a much wider debate about how economies are structured, rather than about the science itself.

Personally, I have no issue with my old mum having a product produced by AstraZeneca. I’m just glad someone had the resources to produce what was needed.

On its own, improved plant breeding through GE will not solve the challenge of how we feed a burgeoning world population without further pressurising the planet.

But such is the enormity and urgency of this challenge that we will need every tool, including GE, in the toolbox.

We simply cannot afford to empty out that toolbox on ideological, religious or other non-scientific grounds.

Even some leading lights in the organic sector now seem to acknowledge this.

There is, of course, another solution to easing the pressure placed on the planet by a hungry, burgeoning population – and that is to depopulate.

Letting people starve by banning improved plant breeding or letting Covid-19 run rife by halting vaccination programmes might well help with depopulation.

But I’m an old-fashioned type who thinks it immoral and inhuman to deny people the means to live better and longer lives. I know my now vaccinated mum agrees.

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