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Gene-Editing An Ancient Crop To Help Feed The World

A crop that has been farmed for thousands of years has been gene-edited by Israeli scientists – so it can be cultivated on a large scale. Cowpea is a…



A crop that has been farmed for thousands of years has been gene-edited by Israeli scientists – so it can be cultivated on a large scale.

Cowpea is a staple in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has always been picked by hand. The stalks don’t naturally stand upright, making it impossible to harvest by machine.

Until now. The agri-tech company BetterSeeds has re-coded the plant’s genetic makeup, so it’s suitable for mechanized harvesting, and can help address the world’s food security concerns.

Cowpea pods and beans. As climate change hits soybean crops, cowpea could help ease food shortages. Courtesy

“We are facing a huge shortfall in the supply of plant-based proteins, namely soybean, due to climate change. If I had to choose one crop to focus on, it would be cowpea,” says Ido Margalit, the company’s CEO.

“Cowpea has the capability to fill in this gap pending its redesign to make it fit for mass scale cultivation which is exactly what BetterSeeds is doing. Cowpea will help to feed the world. 

Gene editing should not be confused with Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), whereby genetic material from one species is transferred to another to create a new trait.

Instead, gene editing in agriculture is a precise tool that enables targeted modifications to the DNA of a plant without adding foreign material. 

“Gene editing isn’t what you see in movies where mutated gorillas try to take over the world,” Margalit tells NoCamels.

Cowpea growing naturally. Courtesy Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia, CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

“This technology can be instrumental in developing crops that are more resilient against pests, more nutritious, and easier to harvest.” 

Better crop genetics can play a role in the food security challenge of feeding the world’s growing population, says Margalit, noting that his plant genome editing company includes seed industry professionals who have become experts in using gene editing technology for the design of new and improved crops.

Among them, Haim Rabinowitch, who is responsible for the modernized gene-edited cherry tomato that can be found in supermarkets around the world. 

Israeli agri-tech scientists have built a name for themselves as a go-to destination for agriculture technology and innovations that make farming more efficient and sustainable than ever.

This country thrives on making seemingly impossible botanical feats possible.

Gene-editing research at the BetterSeeds lab. Courtesy

When it comes to gene editing specifically, the Israeli Ministry of Health has established a regulatory framework for genome editing that prioritizes public health and safety, allowing for advancements in research and development.

This is in stark contrast to the European Union’s strict approach to plant genome editing, limiting their advancements in the field.  

Israel’s endorsing approach to non-GMO gene editing regulations has provided a fertile ground for advancements. 

“Israel’s forward-thinking approach has allowed BetterSeeds to be ahead of the game,” Margalit tells NoCamels.  

To make these breakthroughs, scientists are using CRISPR – a powerful gene-editing tool that allows them to modify DNA with unprecedented precision and ease, making it a valuable tool in various fields of research and biotechnology.

In the field of agriculture, specifically, CRISPR technology can modify specific genes within a plant, however, it is often limited in its reach capacity. 

Cowpea, also known as black-eyed peas, has been gene-edited so it can harvested by machine, rather than by hand. Deposit Photos

“CRISPR cannot be applied to each crop with a one-size-fits-all protocol. You need independent protocols for each crop you want to use CRISPR on,” says Margalit, noting that BetterSeeds attributes its success with CRISPR through the use of their EDGE (Efficient Delivery of Gene Editing) technology. 

BetterSeeds is one of several companies working to improve the development of cowpea. CSIRO and Danforth Center have helped farmers in Nigeria release an improved cowpea crop that is resistant to infestations from pod borers, a major threat to the crop, which has the potential to provide food security for millions of people in Africa. 

What sets BetterSeed apart is the company’s EDGE delivery system that amplifies CRISPR, enabling the efficient introduction of crucial traits, such as pest control, to a wide variety of crops. 

“EDGE is the holy grail of CRISPR technology as projects that would have taken years to complete on limited crops can now be accomplished in a few short months,” says Margalit. 

Prior to BetterSeeds’ gene editing, the black-eyed pea crop had to be hand harvested. But now BetterSeeds says its gene editing techniques have enabled the company to make the plants determinant  – no longer requiring stakes to stay the upright – and all producing pods at the same time, making mechanized harvesting possible. 

And mechanized harvesting means this staple crop can now be grown at scale. The redesigned cowpea will give farmers the opportunity to increase legume cultivation and ensure a market of sustainable supply of this plant-based protein.

Moreover, BetterSeeds says its gene editing techniques of this new breed of cowpea’s proprietary traits make it a reliable and profitable option for farmers, even in the face of climate change.

In the Hausa language, “cowpea” is translated as “meat for the poor,” highlighting its critical role in food security across sub-Saharan Africa.

More than 200 million people in the region depend on cowpea as a primary source of protein, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with millions of farmers (mainly women) dedicated to its harvest. 

However, yield losses due to pests and disease can be as high as 80 percent, according to a 2020 report.

By providing farmers with access to high-yielding, disease-resistant cowpea varieties, BetterSeeds has the potential to boost food security, increase farmers’ incomes, and improve the overall well-being of communities across the region.

“We’re working on a product that has the potential to feed millions of people, and that’s something that keeps us going every day,” says Margalit.

And while the new cowpea variety marks a significant breakthrough for gene editing technology and agriculture, it also holds promise and potential for future crop production breakthroughs.

BetterSeeds is working on reducing growing and harvesting costs of cucumbers, and improving crop production of peanuts. Its gene editing technology also has the potential to save lives by deleting the specific genes in peanuts that cause allergic reactions.  

The post Gene-Editing An Ancient Crop To Help Feed The World appeared first on NoCamels.

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