A new technique is sneaking in our lives, potentially changing the foods we eat every day. From growing resilient crops, to boosting flavor to tackling allergens like gluten, gene-edited food brings to the table a new opportunity to improve health and pleasure, as well as fight climate change. And, most importantly, many scientists say they’re working only with nature’s own tools. Given the impressive change this could potentially bring to our farms, supermarkets and tables, let’s explore how gene-editing could change the world, and the challenging questions we should be asking.
On March 28, 2018, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the guidance of the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) made a big step, saying certain gene-edited plants can be designed, cultivated, and sold free from regulation. Going more into detail, biotechnology regulations state that USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. Among them, CRISPR.
CRISPR is a kind of molecular scissors that scientists can use to change or delete DNA sequences. The tool has been best known for its potential to prevent disease and fight cancer. But now it is being used to improve corn, wheat, rice, mushrooms, and other products. It could lead to hardier, more plentiful crops and tastier, cheaper, more nutritious food. Could CRISPR merely be a faster way of achieving what farmers have long accomplished with traditional techniques, such as seed selection, cross-breeding or mutagenesis? Probably, yes. But it’s not just this.
The possible applications are countless, from reducing food waste, water, and land usage to providing healthier fats to consumers. Some companies plan to use the popular new technology to give fruits and vegetables a longer shelf life. If successful, this could help prevent the sort of waste that comes from people tossing out vegetables and fruits deemed to be damaged or old. Each year, consumers throw away an estimated 400 million pounds of bruised and brown potatoes. The volume of waste grows substantially when you consider all of the other things we eat.
Scientists at Calyxt, a subsidiary of the French pharmaceutical firm Cellectis, developed a soybean by “turning off” the genes responsible for the trans fats in soybean oil. Compared with the conventional version, Calyxt says, oil made from this soybean boasts far more “healthy” fats and far less of the fats that raise bad cholesterol. Pennsylvania State University has developed mushrooms that do not brown, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has created tomatoes suited for shorter growing seasons. Meanwhile, other universities around the country are working on plants that will withstand droughts, diseases and the ravages of climate change. Such improvements, underway in crops as diverse as oranges, wine grapes, and cacao, could protect these plants in the future while cutting down water and chemical use, experts say.
The upsides are, therefore, quite impressive. We can imagine a not-so-distant future where new resilient crops help feed the global population, farms can overcome challenges of climate change, and we enjoy nutritious food that can prevent and fight disease.
But wait a minute, are we talking about GMOs?
The short answer is no. The difference between genetically modified organisms and gene-edited crops is the fact that the latter do not contain foreign genetic material and were not made using the bacteria or viruses that scientists employed in the first-generation GMOs. In the US, the way they are regulated is different, indeed. The FDA made a sharp separation between the two cases, saying that its authority extends only to earlier genetically modified organisms methods because it’s charged with protecting plants from infections and pests. Different is the situation in Europe, where in late July, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that gene-edited crops should adhere to the same strict regulations as genetically modified organisms.
Are there proven risks?
According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, there is no evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of foods derived from gene-edited crops. Studies with animals and research on the chemical composition of genetically engineered (GE) foods currently on the market reveal no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety than from eating their non-GE counterparts.
The same goes for the environment. The use of insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops did not reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms. However, the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.
But just like with GMOs, many argue that consumers deserve a mandatory regulatory process And this is not just for scientific reasons, but for consumer and public safety and confidence.
So, why does everybody seem concerned about gene editing our food?
Lack of background knowledge, a general aversion to ingesting technological products, as well as poor labeling are primary concerns.
Most of us don’t think about it, but almost all American-grown corn and soybeans come from genetically modified seed. Wheel your cart around a supermarket, and you’ll push past aisles of GMO foods, such as bread, cereals, and crackers, as well as yogurt, milk and meat. Even cheese is made from genetically engineered rennet — the enzyme that curdles milk — instead of traditional rennet from animal stomachs.
Finally, labeling is a crucial topic. In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring food producers to label GMOs on their food products, but those rules may not apply to new GE foods. For example, Calyxt has actually labeled its soybean oil as “non-GMO,” stating that it contains no foreign genetic material.
Unlike older genetic modification methods, the new techniques are precise, fast and inexpensive, and companies hope they will avoid the negative reputation and regulatory hurdles that hobbled the first generation of genetically modified foods. But the speed of change has startled consumer and environmental groups who say the new technology has not been adequately vetted, and they have raised alarms over labeling and petitioned regulators to add further safety reviews.
“This is hard stuff,” Federico Tripodi, Calyxt’s chief executive, told The Washington Post. “Consumers accept that technology is good in many aspects of their lives, but technology and food have been something scary. We need to figure out how to engage in that conversation.”