Gene Editing and the Future of Food
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology is expected to transform future food production. It may also help solve problems of food shortages that persist today. About 820 million people do not have enough to eat. These shortages are expected to get worse in the decades to come as the climate changes, population increases, dietary habits change, and water, available land and agricultural labour become scarce.
The technology will bring an increase in crop yields, plants tailored to thrive in local and special conditions (in space, for instance) and make food last longer, relatively cheaply. It is also expected to make food healthier and tastier.
CRISPR is quicker and more precise than selective breeding and the older ‘genetic modification’ (GM) technologies, enabling faster production of new crops for changing climate conditions—it can take only a couple of months to develop a new plant variety. Importantly, it is likely to be more trusted by consumers than GM that mixes and matches genes from different organisms. Gene editing makes changes in an organism’s own genes: deleting or activating them.
Research in this area has grown exponentially in recent years. CRISPR editing is being used to create a wide range of enhanced crops including white mushrooms that do not brown, tomato plants more productive in limited space and berries with increased antioxidants. Different methods are being investigated. One such is California, U.S., based company Cibus’s proprietary Rapid Trait Development System (RTDSTM), a form of gene-editing that combines multiple desired traits in a plant to produce herbicide and disease tolerant crops such as rice, canola and potatoes, as well aflatoxin free peanuts.
The first commercial CRISPR product was launched in the United States (U.S). in February this year when Calyxst, an agricultural firm in Minnesota, sold oil from gene edited soybeans to Midwest restaurants. The soybeans were edited to produce a healthier oil with no trans fats and less saturated fat. Also in the Calyxst pipeline are healthier foods and crops that will benefit food producers such as wheats with more fibre and less gluten, herbicide-resistant canola, cold-storable potato and better quality alfalfa .
Many countries are now allowing gene-editing (although not necessarily transgenic gene modification), at least in plants. The U.S. agriculture department relaxed regulation for gene-edited plants last year. The Australian government permits gene-editing techniques in plant and animals, including humans, that do not introduce new genetic material. Argentina, Japan and China also have a relaxed approach. Russia have announced a federal programme aiming to create 10 new varieties of gene-edited crops and animals by 2020.
Yet some parts of the world are reluctant to permit CRISPR-created crops and food. In Europe they are subject to the same regulation as conventional GM organisms (GMOs) and cannot be brought to the European market. This is a source of frustration to many scientists, who believe the technique is as safe as classic plant breeding, pointing out that the small changes effected by CRISPR gene editing could—unlike transgenic GM—occur spontaneously in nature. This caution threatens to leave Europe behind other developed countries in food innovation, as well as other areas where CRISPR looks set to be a game-changing technology.
CRISPR promises to bring rewards for biotechnology firms and food producers. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer, amongst others, are investing heavily in gene-editing technology. At the same time it could play a significant role in reducing world hunger and malnutrition. Being cheap and efficient, the technology can be used by academics, small companies and NGOs to develop food crops beneficial or lifesaving to smaller, poorer populations, where there is little profit to be made. In contrast the research and development costs of GM crops are considerable and can only be undertaken by large companies to produce profitable seeds that will recoup their investment.
We welcome comments on all aspects of our editorial content and coverage. If you have any questions about our service, or want to know more, please e-mail us or complete our enquiry form:Submit an Enquiry