Research Policy

Seeds for All

Important patents for gene-edited seeds are held by universities. While this presents an opportunity for farmers in developing countries, we are unlikely to see speedy deregulation of this new technology anytime soon.

Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Gena Olson

Genome-edited seed varieties could enable more sustainable agriculture. Among them, for example, corn from apomictic plants. (Image: iStock / montiannoowong)

For the past few years, Ueli Grossniklaus – a developmental biologist and director of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology – has been busy tweaking a revolutionary application of green gene technology. His work centers on apomixis, or asexual reproduction via seeds without meiosis or fertilization. Some plants are capable of this on their own, and Grossniklaus is investigating the basic underlying mechanisms of apomixis with the aim of applying it in crops. The idea is that high-yield varieties could generate cloned seeds with exactly the same characteristics as the mother plant. This would massively simplify the process of producing hybrid seeds – the labor-intensive approach preferred in the agricultural sector for its ability to produce robust, high-yield crops. “In terms of efficiency, we’re not yet where we want to be,” says Grossniklaus. “But apomixis has a future, and it’s going to come.”

Increased independence

This could translate into more independence for farmers, freeing them up from the need to buy hybrid seeds every year. Grossniklaus is dedicated to basic research, but the promise of apomixis also has a political dimension when it comes to development aid. According to Grossniklaus, small farmers in developing countries in particular could benefit from access to specially tailored hybrid seeds. He believes that the potential of these kinds of crops – and the possibilities of gene editing, or making precise changes in the genome using Crispr/Cas9 – are strong arguments for advancing genetech and its applications. “Gene editing is going to benefit farmers and democratize seed development,” he says. “Because if the technology is sensibly regulated, it will lead to new companies being founded and new products being developed.”

He welcomes the decision by the Swiss federal government to review legal options for allowing the cultivation of genetically modified crops in Switzerland. In March 2022, the Parliament requested that the Federal Council put together a draft law for the councils. “It doesn’t many any sense to apply the current gene technology law to genetically modified plants, thereby placing a moratorium on cultivation,” says Grossniklaus. Genetically modified plants could be considered identical to naturally occurring plants, he explains, since most of them only contain the kinds of changes that also occur in nature. This is why he believes that the technology needs to be deregulated in order to translate progress in the lab into new breeding lines.

Calculating risks

When it comes to deregulation, Matthias Mahlmann from the Institute of Law is skeptical. The constitutional scholar and legal philosopher has been a member of the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) since 2011 and is well versed in both the controversy and legislation that surround the topic. “The lines drawn between proponents and critics of the technology still exist, I believe, although less strongly than before,” explains Mahlmann. In his view, relaxing the current legislation for genetically modified plants is anything but simple: “We are facing the challenge of regulating a new technology about which we don’t yet know everything.”

Mahlmann points out that Crispr/Cas9 is an incredibly new technology that has only been in use for around 10 years. He says that there is still uncertainty when it comes to issues such as off-target effects, meaning changes occurring in the genome beyond what was actually intended. According to Grossniklaus, however, this kind of phenomenon is “extremely rare” and can be eliminated as the technology is applied and refined. But given the issues at hand, Mahlmann still calls for regulation that follows in the Swiss tradition of taking a cautious approach to the risks of new technologies. “In order to gain more knowledge of the risks, we need a legally structured approval process with different levels based on the possible dangers,” he says, adding that swift and comprehensive deregulation is hard to imagine in the current situation. The issue is international in nature as well, with Switzerland looking to the regulatory situation in the EU, which is currently wrestling with the same issues. Mahlmann hopes to see a fact-based debate and discussion in which far-sightedness, sound judgment and cool heads prevail.

Hot patents

Ueli Grossniklaus’ research touches on another controversial issue: patents. If his work on apomixis comes to fruition, big seed manufacturers will be clamoring for the technology. He has therefore decided to patent important developments in his work. “I do have my issues with patent law and would prefer if agricultural production could be an exception here,” he says. “However, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we ignored patent law altogether.” Without the protection afforded by a patent, for-profit entities would be free to use findings from basic research without having to pay up. “If we hold the patents, we at the university can determine the conditions of use,” explains Grossniklaus. “For example, we could give out free licenses for use in the humanitarian sector.” Unlike at the dawn of the genetech era, the big patents for gene editing – like Crispr/Cas9 – are held by universities. Grossniklaus sees this as an opportunity for smaller operations and farmers in the Global South. Even if seed production is in commercial hands, patent holders from the academic sector would be able to have a say in how their technologies are used. According to Grossniklaus, this would allow for fair and safe use.

But will this optimistic view become a reality? Matthias Mahlmann is uncertain where the gene editing journey is taking us. “In my view, it remains to be seen whether the technologies and patents in this field will be democratized,” he says. But one thing is certain – genetically modified plants are popular. If they receive approval in the next few years, there will be a surge of genetically modified seeds on the market that could create a more sustainable future for agriculture. Who knows? Maybe in years to come we'll be eating food grown from apomictic seeds.

This article appeared in UZH Magazine UZH Magazin 2/2022.

Stefan Stöcklin, Editor UZH Communications

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