New Kind Of GMO Called 'Rewilding' Could Restore Crops' Lost Traits

06/03/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015
Shutterstock / Mikko Lemola

Even the most ardent supporters of the use of genetic modification would admit one potentially troubling fact about the technique: It's very new.

Though genetically modified organisms have become ubiquitous on farms across the world, especially in the United States, they only became available for commercial use in the '90s. Many critics of GMOs (and modern agriculture more broadly) argue that returning to the agricultural practices that sustained human life for the thousands of years before their advent would be the best course of action. For most of human history, after all, all farming was what we now term "organic."

But what if genetic engineering could turn back the clock and bring crops closer, in some ways, to what they were before the rise of industrial agriculture? To the extent that opposition to GMOs is based on nostalgia for a simpler form of agriculture, it could be an avenue that might intrigue even diehard organic partisans.

A group of Danish scientists profiled by the New York Times on Thursday wants to make it happen. In a paper published this week in the journal Trends in Plant Science, the researchers from the University of Copenhagen propose using genetic modification to insert into modern crops genes that were present in more primitive forms of that same species, to imbue them with beneficial characteristics such as drought resistance. The scientists suggest that this technique be called "rewilding," because it would restore traits native to the wild versions of the plant that have been lost through generations of selective breeding.

Part of what they say makes this idea compelling is that a "rewilded" plant might legally be able to be called "organic." United States regulations preclude GMOs containing foreign genes -- such as those from bacteria, which are added to confer pest resistance on much of the corn grown in America -- from being labeled organic, but not those genetically modified to contain genes from its own species.

To be sure, anyone who tried to implement the Danish proposal would face obstacles if they actually tried to call a rewilded GMO organic. But many scientists have already spent years trying to use conventional techniques to restore genetic material long ago bred out of commercial organisms, with the most prominent example being the effort to breed extinct aurochs -- the ancestors of modern cattle -- back into existence. And genetic engineering could potentially be a far more efficient method than selective breeding.

Plus, more and more experts have come around to the idea that genetic engineering isn't inherently dangerous, and that it may have applications whose utility outweigh their risks. So the idea of rewilding may just have legs.

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