Gene editing

Genome editing (or gene editing) encompasses a range of new molecular biology techniques that can be used to make targeted changes in the genome, including zinc-finger nucleases, transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALEN), meganucleases, oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM), and CRISPR-Cas «genetic scissors». These methods are very efficient and precise. The Swiss agricultural crops that we enjoy today are all the result of human intervention in the plant genome: first through targeted crossbreeding, then through various modern breeding techniques such as hybrid breeding or mutagenesis. For the latter, the plants are exposed to mutagenic conditions, such as with radioactive irradiation or treatment with chemicals.

Traditional mutagenesis is a process by which the genetic information of an organism is changed by the production of a mutation, such as can also occur spontaneously in nature. It is exempt from the Genetic Engineering Act, and products resulting from mutagenesis are not considered to be genetically modified. The process has been allowed in Switzerland for decades, including in organic farming. This just means that, in Switzerland, we grow and consume varieties whose genetic material has been modified. This is normal – because breeding itself is not natural. Breeding leads to changes in the crops that are often beneficial. For example, the predecessors of our fruits and vegetables often tasted more bitter and acidic. These properties were removed by breeding. The way it works is that breeders select traits that they – or the market – find desirable, regardless of whether such traits are natural or not. All the crops we eat today are no longer natural. This is nothing new.

These crops do not pose any increased risks to the environment or to consumers. It is incomprehensible that the Swiss government is proposing that gentler, more precise, and at least equally safe breeding methods should be placed under the genetic engineering moratorium and thus explicitly prohibited. From a scientific point of view, gene editing that does not introduce foreign DNA is closer to established mutagenesis than to conventional genetic engineering, in which foreign genetic material is also transferred. In fact, the products of such new genomic methods are indistinguishable from natural mutations. These breeding methods produce genetic changes that are constantly taking place in plants or have been induced in breeding for decades.

The mechanism essentially works the same as natural mutations or conventional breeding using mutagenesis; it is simply more targeted and therefore saves time. Plants can be made more robust in the face of environmental influences such as pests, diseases, or climatic changes without losing their existing properties. This benefits popular fruit varieties such as Gala apples, traditional grapes such as Merlot and Pinot, and popular potato varieties such as Bintje, which are no longer farmed due to their susceptibility to disease. Thanks to this process, the use of pesticides can be reduced to a minimum. This method will contribute to overcoming the challenges facing agriculture in the future, and Switzerland should be given the opportunity to benefit from it. Due to the worldwide population growth, production and the efficiency of agriculture must be increased. At the same time, the impact on people and the environment must be kept as low as possible.