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Shedding Light in the Darkness

Technology’s March to Dominate Global Food Production

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In January, UC Berkeley food systems researcher Maywa Montenegro reported on the revolution in gene science known as CRISPR. “Very few technologies truly merit the epithet “game changer” — but a new genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 is one of them,” she wrote. “In the words of Jill Wildonger of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, ‘It really opens up the genome of virtually every organism that’s been sequenced to be edited and engineered.’ And that, when it comes to agriculture and the environment, is both its promise and its peril.”

Earlier this month, a Swedish plant biologist Stefan Jansson sautéed up a handful of cabbage, tossed it with some pasta and sat down to eat the first ever CRISPR-modified meal consumed by a human. A headline in The Atlantic gleefully announced “CRISPR Could Usher in a New Era of Delicious GMO Foods.”

The article proclaimed: “CRISPR could be an opportunity to reintroduce genetic engineering to the world—to get beyond poisoned names like “GMO” and Monsanto.” To make products that exciting and novel and cooler. Way cooler than slower growing cabbage anyway.”

The article continued: “CRISPR could make all sorts of fruits and vegetables more nutritious and delicious—things you might actually notice and look for. Maybe even create awesome new varieties that become as trendy as kale.”

Of course Monsanto has jumped on the CRISPR bandwagon. It just announced that they have licensed the genome-editing technology from the Broad Institute for use in seed development. Monsanto intends to use CRISPR to make crops like corn and soybeans more fruitful and more resistant to diseases and drought.

Since its 2013 demonstration as a genome editing tool in Arabidopsis and tobacco — two widely used laboratory plants — CRISPR has been road-tested in crops, including wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes. By the end of 2014, a flood of research into agricultural uses for CRISPR included a spectrum of applications, from boosting crop resistance to pests to reducing the toll of livestock disease.

Chinese scientists have created a strain of wheat that is resistant to powdery mildew, a destructive fungal disease. DuPont is currently collaborating with Doudna’s company, Caribou Biosciences, to grow corn and wheat strains edited for drought resistance.

Recombinetics made headlines with hornless dairy cattle carrying a smidgen of genes from naturally smooth-headed beef cows. The company is now working on Brazilian beef cattle with larger muscles (for more meat, which may be more tender), while other firms are developing chickens that only produce female offspring (for egg-laying) and beef cattle that only produce males (for more efficient feed-to-meat conversion).

Montenegro points out that to U.S. regulators, most organisms currently under development — Cibus’ oilseed rape, Recombinetics’ hornless cows and Caribou Biosciences’ corn and wheat — may not be considered genetic modification. The European Commission has not yet decided how it will treat genomic editing, including CRISPR. Nor has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed whether CRISPR animals will be regulated in the future.

“It seems like there are pretty gaping holes in our regulatory system for genetic engineering, and CRISPR falls right through them,” noted Patty Lovera, assistant director at the advocacy organisation Food and Water Watch in New Scientist.

CRISPR is coming to agriculture — with big implications for food, farmers, consumers and nature

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