Gene editing is a selective breeding process with a little nip and tuck of the plant’s own DNA. It is based on a natural process that allows researchers to cut out certain bits of DNA in order to control a trait. The cell’s genetic structure then repairs itself automatically minus the target gene. Using this technology, crops can be programmed to produce higher yields that are more nutritious, resistant to extreme weather conditions such as drought, and impervious to pests. Hundreds of research labs are working on the potential of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or simply the technique’s acronym, “CRISPR” to solve a range of food-related concerns for both farmers and consumers. Think about produce that doesn’t brown when cut, or cooking oils with higher omega-3 and less saturated fat content. The candy manufacturing giant Mars has begun to use gene editing to produce cacao that is resistant to fungal diseases, which are responsible for wiping out 20-30 percent of the crop each year – increased yields equals increased sustainability and less food waste!
With this technology, researchers can permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms and, in the future, may make it possible to correct mutations at precise locations in the human genome to treat genetic causes of diseases such as cancer. But are foods created using gene editing safe to consume? The answer is yes.
The CRISPR revolution is reinventing the GMO debate. Most of the plants that have been gene-edited using this technology have been created by knocking out or “deleting” genes and not by introducing genes from an unrelated species, like first-generation genetic modification (GM). Precisely because it’s subtraction rather than addition, this form of gene editing mimics the processes of traditional plant breeding, a practice used in agriculture for hundreds of years. Remember cross breeding/pollinating those soybeans in middle school to get the pink flowers? It’s exactly the same concept, except more precise. Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared crops created with gene-edited mutations are “indistinguishable” from those produced by traditional plant breeding. That’s completely true.
Huge questions vex the future of the food supply – how do we feed 9 billion people? How do farms survive in an era of unprecedented climate uncertainty? How do we create more resilient and nutritious foods for over 2 billion people in both developed and under-developed countries that currently have micronutrient deficiencies? In both industrial and university labs, CRISPR technologies offer a promising future for the food supply and the health of the growing global population!