Organic farmer calls for genome editing for fruit growing

Organic farmer calls for genome editing for fruit growing

The high number of plant protection treatments is a major challenge for organic farmers. One of them is apple grower Marco Messerli from Kirchdorf BE. He has had to treat susceptible apple varieties with organic pesticides a total of 48 times. Too much, he thinks, and is now calling for the authorisation of new breeding methods. Experts agree with him.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Organic is better. At least that's what most people think. But not everything that is organic shines. A lot of pesticides are used in organic fruit growing - and not in short supply, as an article in the «BauernZeitung» shows.

For example, organic farmer Marco Messerli had to treat susceptible apple varieties with organic pesticides no less than 48 times. The Bernese farmer announced this at the Central Switzerland Plant Protection and Fruit Growing Conference organised by the Central Switzerland Fruit Growers' Association (AZO) and did not shy away from naming the problems in organic fruit growing in his presentation.


That's why organic farmers spray more often


«Yes, it's true that organic farmers spray more often and sometimes even at night,» Messerli is quoted as saying in the BauernZeitung newspaper. Especially when heavy rainfall has washed down the protective coating, spraying at night has become necessary. «I can't afford scab infections for quality reasons. That's why it's crucial to renew the protective coating within hours.» In addition, on some days he even had to spray two products - one fungicide and one insecticide treatment.

Messerli is therefore calling for the breeding of new robust varieties to be driven forward and for innovative breeding methods such as Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors to be considered. «We are in the year 2024. If you really want to produce organic apples sustainably, you also have to allow new breeding methods,» says the young fruit grower.
One thing is clear: Messerli's reports make people sit up and take notice. However, the conflicting goals are by no means insurmountable. New breeding methods such as the Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors can certainly help. With minimal intervention, the technology makes it possible to introduce desired resistances into existing, popular apple varieties and in turn eliminate undesired characteristics that favour diseases.


Even bioscientists see advantages in genetic engineering


According to the Swiss television science programme "Einstein", there is no way around the new methods if popular apple varieties such as Golden Delicious, Braeburn and Gala are to be cultivated in Switzerland in the medium term.
The latter variety in particular is extremely susceptible to scab.

Nobel Prize winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has the same opinion. Varieties that are familiar to consumers can be efficiently optimised by means of genome editing: «Varieties that are already well established can simply be improved by a gene mutation that has proven to be advantageous in other species», says Nüsslein-Volhard. This is why the Nobel Prize winner is in favour of using the Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors not only in conventional plant breeding, but also in organic farming.

Genetic engineering is frowned upon in the organic world, but genome editing is gentler and more targeted, especially in comparison to untargeted mutation breeding, which is also widespread in organic breeding and selects the strongest plants using radioactive irradiation or chemical treatment. This is why Urs Niggli from Switzerland, who is one of the world's most renowned bioscientists, also sees advantages in the technology. «It would be unattractive if the conventional farmer had a potato variety that could do without pesticides - and the organic farmer had a potato variety that he had to spray with copper,» the NZZ newspaper quoted Niggli as saying, citing the daily newspaper taz.

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