Genetically modified (GM) foods were first introduced and approved for human consumption in the 1990s in the United States (US) and about 90% of corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the US today are GM. GM crops are grown in both developed and developing countries around the world by millions of farmers on millions of acres of arable land.
GM foods have had their genome engineered in the laboratory to express a desired physiological trait. This is achieved by using genetic engineering to transfer or introduce new genes. Typically, foods are engineered to have added benefits to increase yields and nutrients, or to combat resistance and tolerance to environmental stresses. For example, if you want a crop to grow better in cold weather you can add a gene from an animal that has adapted to live in freezing water.
Most scientists, and international bodies such as the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health agree that GM foods are safe to eat and do not pose any unique health risks to humans. Yet back then consumers were placed outside of their comfort zones and with instinctive fears of scientific and technological innovation, GM foods were labelled as ‘Frankenfoods’.
How is Genome Editing Different?
Genome edited foods are similar to GM foods, but foreign genes from other species are NOT added to the food crop as is the case for genetically modified foods. With genome editing, specific genes are cut out, turned off, or a variation to the gene is introduced creating a higher yielding, disease-resistant and more nutritious crop without the need to use pesticides or herbicides. But nothing new is added to the genome, and in essence, nature is being perfected. In order to achieve this a relatively new technique, termed CRISPR, is utilised. CRISPR is highly precise, and makes genome editing simpler, cheaper and significantly faster. The changes to the crop’s genome are permanent and can be passed on through seeds.
Does the Food Industry Need Genome-Edited Crops?
Food scientists are using CRISPR to try and solve many food-related challenges. Genome-edited crops have the potential to keep croplands productive despite climate change and they also have the potential to reduce the need for fertilisers. Furthermore, CRISPR could potentially be used to make raising livestock more efficient, more sustainable and more humane. With CRISPR, food scientists are able to precisely target and cut any part of the genome, thus editing any chosen genetic material. What this means, for example, is that CRISPR is able to remove the gene that causes certain fruits or vegetables to turn brown after a few days, simply by removing the gene that causes it.
Currently, plant geneticist, Zach Lippman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, is using CRISPR to genetically modify cherry tomatoes. Lippman has tweaked three genes in order for the tomatoes to have shorter stems and be more tightly clustered, akin to grapevines, in order to make them suitable for large-scale urban agriculture.
A paper published in Nature Biotechnology last year has reported that scientists have developed a rice crop that it resistant to bacterial blight. They utilised CRISPR to edit the genome of the crop to introduce five mutations to SWEET gene promoters that are implicated in disease susceptibility. The scientists conclude that the genome-edited SWEET promoters provide rice crops with robust, broad-spectrum resistance. This research shows the potential use of CRISPR to aid the evolution of our food systems to feed the growing world population in an effective, affordable way for the good of the planet.
Regulating GM and Genome-Edited Foods
In Europe, GM foods have to undergo extensive regulatory approval before going to market, however this is not globally the case. In North America, regulators generally look at final outcomes and not the process used to get to there. This is contrary to the European Union (EU), which generally regulates based on the process used to make the food. In the EU, labelling is required on all food products containing more than 0.9% of approved GM ingredients and must be traceable to its origin. North America has a voluntary GM labelling policy, which means that the consumer may not be able to tell whether the food they are buying in a supermarket contains GM ingredients or not. The EU intends to maintain rigorous regulation and labelling of genome-edited ingredients, similar to the current standards for GM ingredients. However, in certain countries, such as the US and Canada, genome-edited foods do not have to undergo a risk assessment as it is deemed that genome-editing is simply an extension of traditional plant breeding and thus no approval is necessary.
Some food scientists argue that we don’t yet know enough about the CRISPR technology, and have concerns that there may be unintended effects to the food crop that we currently do not know or realise.
And what will the regulations be in the UK post leaving the EU? The UK will no longer have to adhere to the EUs traditionally cautious approach to biotechnology in food and agriculture, and would be able to grow its own GM and genome-edited crops, which would not only reduce our carbon footprint but could also put the UK at the forefront of the bioscience sector to develop disease-resistant crops able to feed the worlds growing population. Yet should we be regulating and labelling our foods that contain GM or genome-edited ingredients? Leaving the EU could also see the UK securing a trade agreement with North America and thus the import of unregulated and unlabelled GM and genome-edited foods.
It is imperative that consumes are better educated regarding the facts surrounding genome-edited foods, and that this novel promising technology should not be brushed off or become the victim of scaremongering. However, it is equally as important to fully understand the technology and to not underestimate any potential risk. Consumers need to understand the difference between GM crops and genome-edited crops by CRISPR, which is essentially ‘fine-tuning’ nature, and as such the regulation and labelling being entirely separate for each method of genetic modification. Ultimately, any investigation on genome-edited foods must focus on the end product, and whether CRISPR has the potential to solve the real and urgent problems of our food supply.
Ricardo Oliva et al. (2019). Broad-spectrum resistance to bacterial blight in rice using genome editing. Nature Biotechnology volume 37, pages 1344–1350:
Here’s what Canadians need to know about genetically modified and gene-edited foods. Published by CTV News:
Gene editing could revolutionize the food industry, but it’ll have to fight the PR war GMO foods lost. Published by CBC Radio: