Last week, the USDA ruled that organisms gene-edited by Crispr technology will not be subject to the same regulations as genetically modified organisms (GMO). US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the USDA currently does not, and has no plans to, regulate plants or animals “that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.” In other words, Crispr-edited organisms are just as safe to eat as traditional ones.
If you don’t know about Crispr, it’s a buzzy new technology that allows scientists to delete, add, or modify genetic sequences with an organism, be that a plant, a turkey, or even a human. As you might expect, it has huge implications for the food system. Crispr technology can transform genetic codes to make crops or animals grow more quickly, taste better, or be more resistant to disease and harsh environments.
Genetic modification (as in GMO’s), by contrast, involves adding genes from organisms like bacteria into crops order to change plants’ properties. The differences may seem pretty minimal, but not to the USDA; Crispr-edited organisms are subject to much less regulation than GMO’s, which have to be approved by the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA before they’re allowed on shelves.
This is because the USDA views gene-editing with Crispr as a sped-up version of selected breeding. So instead of humans slowly selecting and growing only the juiciest apples over decades and decades, eventually creating an extra-juicy varietal, scientists can just do this in one go by editing the genome of the apple itself.
The U.S. isn’t the first one to be lenient on gene-editing technology. In 2017 Germany and Sweden ruled that gene-edited plants were distinct from GMO, and therefore should not be subject to the same regulation. Which gives scientists working on Crispr technology a lot of freedom to manipulate crops and meat animals, at least compared to those developing GMO’s.
So what does this mean for you and your dinner plate? To start with, Crispr will enable biotech companies to develop a whole slew of modified foodstuffs. Think wheat suitable for people with celiac disease, like they’re making at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain. Or pigs and cows that grow more quickly and with fewer health problems, which they’re developing at the U.K. livestock company Genus Breeding.
Proponents claim that Crispr technology will be used to make food more nutritious, more resistant to adverse environmental conditions, and taste better. Anti-GMO advocates, however, aren’t so keen on the new technology. They view Crispr as just another form of genetic modification; which, to be fair, it technically is — just one that’s more efficient and effective than traditional GMO processes, and which doesn’t require a transplant from another organism.
As our environment degrades and it becomes harder to produce food, CRISPR could also hold the answer to feeding our population (which the UN projects will grow to almost 10 billion by 2050). By allowing scientists to create plants that are resistant to drought, increased temperatures, and poor soil, it could theoretically help increase crop yields despite the challenges of climate change. It could also extend products’ shelf life, reducing food waste from spoilage.
If this all sounds remote and unrealistically futuristic, it’s not; Crispr-edited foods could be in supermarkets sooner than you think. Ozy.com reported that DuPont Pioneer is currently creating a strain of Crispr-edited corn that they claim could be ready for planting as early as 2019. Genus also hopes to have their meat from their quick-growing cows and pigs on supermarket shelves in 5 years. So you might be able to purchase Crispr-edited pork chops and ears of corn by as early as 2023.
The USDA hasn’t yet decided if they will require companies to inform consumers which of their foods have been edited with Crispr, which they currently do for GMO’s. But stay tuned; they’re expected to release a decision by July. No matter which way they go, their recent decision not to submit Crispr to the same regulation as GMO’s means that they’re giving enormous freedom to gene-editing technology. We’ll have to wait and see if it lives up to the hype.