Farming has always had a constant battle between crop and animal production, and predators of one sort or another. In developed countries, the predators are mainly small and in very large numbers – mainly insects or fungi in crops and bacteria in animals. We have accepted that pestilence is part of living with nature. The answer has been the development of pesticides – insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, bactericides. (Those farming near urban concentrations would also like to see legal vandalicides.) This reliance on chemical control has its problems of side effects, residues (some of which may be long term), pollution and regulation.
There is now the break-through development of “Gene Editing” which will allow very precise “snipping” of genes out of a chromosome. This will allow the cutting out of a bad gene or the snipping of a gene resistant to a pest in one species of a wild plant (say wheat) and insertion into a developed crop plant of the same family (crop wheat in this case). This is a very good reason for preserving all sorts of apparently/maybe useless species because a “bank” of alternatives may allow us to pick and choose resistance. (Full marks to the vision of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for building a global seed bank.) Having got a single plant resistant to a particular pest, then the problem is to drive that resistance into the entire population of commercial crop – that is where “Gene Driving” comes in.
Where is this going? Well, it will take a long time but potentially these techniques will allow us to reduce a wide range of plant and animal diseases and conditions, while still maintaining chemical pesticides and anti-biotics. What we are doing is adding to the armoury in this constant battle for survival in the face of a growing population.