Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?

Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?
Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, right, visits a citrus grower in an orange grove affected by citrus greening disease in Fort Meade, Fla., on Sept. 27, 2018. "If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we'd have a way to defeat this disease," says Gmitter. (AP Photo/Federica Narancio)

The next generation of biotech food is headed for the grocery aisles, and first up may be salad dressings or granola bars made with soybean oil genetically tweaked to be good for your heart.

By early next year, the first foods from plants or animals that had their DNA "edited" are expected to begin selling. It's a different technology than today's controversial "genetically modified" foods, more like faster breeding that promises to boost nutrition, spur crop growth, and make farm animals hardier and fruits and vegetables last longer.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has declared gene editing one of the breakthroughs needed to improve food production so the world can feed billions more people amid a changing climate. Yet governments are wrestling with how to regulate this powerful new tool. And after years of confusion and rancor, will shoppers accept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in disguise?

"If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they'll embrace the products and worry less about the technology," said Dan Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor and chief science officer for Calyxt Inc., which edited soybeans to make the oil heart-healthy.

Researchers are pursuing more ambitious changes: Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that's low in gluten. Mushrooms that don't brown, and better-producing tomatoes. Drought-tolerant corn, and rice that no longer absorbs soil pollution as it grows. Dairy cows that don't need to undergo painful de-horning, and pigs immune to a dangerous virus that can sweep through herds.

Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening, a so far unstoppable infection that's destroying Florida's famed oranges.

First they must find genes that could make a new generation of trees immune.

"If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we'd have a way to defeat this disease," said Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, as he examined diseased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.

Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?
Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, holds an orange affected by citrus greening disease at a grove in Fort Meade, Fla., on Sept. 27, 2018. "If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we'd have a way to defeat this disease," says Gmitter. (AP Photo/Federica Narancio)

GENETICALLY MODIFIED OR EDITED, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

Farmers have long genetically manipulated crops and animals by selectively breeding to get offspring with certain traits. It's time-consuming and can bring trade-offs. Modern tomatoes, for example, are larger than their pea-sized wild ancestor, but the generations of cross-breeding made them more fragile and altered their nutrients.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that were mixed with another species' DNA to introduce a specific trait—meaning they're "transgenic." Best known are corn and soybeans mixed with bacterial genes for built-in resistance to pests or weed killers.

Despite international scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to eat, some people remain wary and there is concern they could spur herbicide-resistant weeds.

Now gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, promise to alter foods more precisely, and at less cost, without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism's own genetic alphabet.

The technology can insert new DNA, but most products in development so far switch off a gene, according to University of Missouri professor Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes.

Those new Calyxt soybeans? Voytas' team inactivated two genes so the beans produce oil with no heart-damaging trans fat and that shares the famed health profile of olive oil without its distinct taste.

The hornless calves? Most dairy Holsteins grow horns that are removed for the safety of farmers and other cows. Recombinetics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA instructions from naturally hornless Angus beef cattle.

Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?
This Sept. 27, 2018 photo shows petri dishes with citrus seedlings that are used for gene editing research at the University of Florida in Lake Alfred, Fla. Gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALEN, promise to alter foods precisely, and cheaply—without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism's own genetic alphabet. (AP Photo/Federica Narancio)

"Precision breeding," is how animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, explains it. "This isn't going to replace traditional breeding," but make it easier to add one more trait.

RULES AREN'T CLEAR

The Agriculture Department says extra rules aren't needed for "plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding," clearing the way for development of about two dozen gene-edited crops so far.

In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 proposed tighter, drug-like restrictions on gene-edited animals. It promises guidance sometime next year on exactly how it will proceed.

Because of trade, international regulations are "the most important factor in whether genome editing technologies are commercialized," USDA's Paul Spencer told a meeting of agriculture economists.

Europe's highest court ruled last summer that existing European curbs on the sale of transgenic GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods, too.

But at the World Trade Organization this month, the U.S. joined 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Argentina and Brazil in urging other countries to adopt internationally consistent, science-based rules for gene-edited agriculture.

ARE THESE FOODS SAFE?

Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?
Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, holds citrus seedlings that are used for gene editing research at the University of Florida in Lake Alfred, Fla., on Sept. 27, 2018. Gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALEN, promise to alter foods precisely, and cheaply—without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism's own genetic alphabet. (AP Photo/Federica Narancio)

The biggest concern is what are called off-target edits, unintended changes to DNA that could affect a crop's nutritional value or an animal's health, said Jennifer Kuzma of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.

Scientists are looking for any signs of problems. Take the hornless calves munching in a UC-Davis field. One is female and once it begins producing milk, Van Eenennaam will test how similar that milk's fat and protein composition is to milk from unaltered cows.

"We're kind of being overly cautious," she said, noting that if eating beef from naturally hornless Angus cattle is fine, milk from edited Holsteins should be, too.

But to Kuzma, companies will have to be up-front about how these new foods were made and the evidence that they're healthy. She wants regulators to decide case-by-case which changes are no big deal, and which might need more scrutiny.

"Most gene-edited plants and animals are probably going to be just fine to eat. But you're only going to do yourself a disservice in the long run if you hide behind the terminology," Kuzma said.

AVOIDING A BACKLASH

Uncertainty about regulatory and consumer reaction is creating some strange bedfellows. An industry-backed group of food makers and farmers asked university researchers and consumer advocates to help craft guidelines for "responsible use" of gene editing in the food supply.

"Clearly this coalition is in existence because of some of the battle scars from the GMO debates, there's no question about that," said Greg Jaffe of the food-safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, who agreed to join the Center for Food Integrity's guidelines group. "There's clearly going to be questions raised about this technology."

Gene-edited food is coming, but will shoppers buy?
In this July 11, 2018 photo, animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, points to a group of dairy calves that won't have to be de-horned thanks to gene editing. The calves are descended from a bull genetically altered to be hornless, and the company behind the work, Recombinetics, says gene-edited traits could ease animal suffering and improve productivity. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

SUSTAINABILITY OR HYPE?

Gene-editing can't do everything, cautioned Calyxt's Voytas. There are limitations to how much foods could be changed. Sure, scientists made wheat containing less gluten, but it's unlikely to ever be totally gluten-free for people who can't digest that protein, for example—or to make, say, allergy-free peanuts.

Nor is it clear how easily companies will be able to edit different kinds of food, key to their profit.

Despite her concerns about adequate regulation, Kuzma expects about 20 gene-edited crops to hit the U.S. market over five years—and she notes that scientists also are exploring changes to crops, like cassava, that are important in the poorest countries.

"We think it's going to really revolutionize the industry," she said.


Explore further

Tweaking just a few genes in wild plants can create new food crops – but let's get the regulation right

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Nov 14, 2018
Resistance to gene edited foods from the left is often just as irrational as climate change deniers are on the right. The main difficulty I have seen is rather than making fact based arguments about the dangers of specific kinds of modifications, like the dangers of incorporating BT proteins for bug resistance in corn, irrational and emotional rejection of the entire technology often ignores the fact that many uses of the technology are actually just speedups in centuries old cross breeding techniques.

Indeed, unless arguments for or against any technology are fact and evidence based, they become uncompelling emotional throwaways that have no place in any rational discussion.

That is a completely non-partisan, non-political statement and applies globally.

Nov 14, 2018
I'd say they can make corn and tomatoes worse without any direct genetic changes at all; corn I get used to be sweet and tender. Not any more. I used to be able to smell a tomato and tell if it was going to be good. Not any more. The rows of kernels on the corn are all lined up, The tomatoes are square so they can fit more in a box. They look real nice.

I'm in favor of genetically modified foods once we have fully sequenced all the DNA we're using and understand how it works. Until then we're throwing the dice. Testing should reveal everything, but judging by several pharmaceutical reactions over the last few decades we don't find them all. I don't think testing is enough. I think we need to know what all the genes do and how they work before we start introducing such things into the food supply of billions of people.

If I was going to do it anyway and pick the less dangerous course, I'd stick to plants. They're less complicated.

Nov 14, 2018
@Da Schneib we wouldn't know which genes to edit if we didn't have an idea of how it works.
understanding all complexities of biology from dna sequence to molecular interactions could take centuries and may even be beyond the capabilities of human minds. we can't even agree on what (natural) diet is best for human health.

Nov 14, 2018
Now, all of that said, I think prejudice against GMOs is misplaced. But the direct dangers of BT and the indirect dangers of Roundup-resistant plants argue that we need to be more careful than we're being. The fight is not over to introduce these things; but our state of knowledge is insufficient at this time. That's how I see it. There is controversy among the accredited scientists and while that's amusing to watch in astrophysics, it's alarming among food.

Nov 14, 2018
@Beethoven, "having an idea" and "knowing all the pathways" are two very different things. Many genes are of multiple use; that is because many protein substructures are of multiple use. At the rate data processing is expanding (along with technologies like CRISPR) I seriously doubt we are even talking decades.

Hey, we've been making pharmaceuticals for quite a long time; vaccination was discovered at the end of the 18th century, But Jenner sure did check close before he started inoculating people. And we still do. And still we miss some.

Nov 14, 2018
In the end the only real way to know if its safe is trial and error. that extra data you're waiting for isn't going to change that.

Nov 14, 2018
the fact that many uses of the technology are actually just speedups in centuries old cross breeding techniques.

Which is precisely why I think we shouldn't use them. With breeding you have a certain amount of time to figure out if you've screwed up the environment and can remedy the situation before it spreads too far (because with breeding you don't get the full blown death-dealing super-organism at once but in small steps).

With GMO and gene editing it can be too late for any kind of 'undo' operation. When that stuff is in worldwide use and you figure out that it causes uncurable cancer after 30 years of exposure humanity is screwed.

It's a bit like nuclear powerplants in that respect: safe on paper....until something happens which no one has foreseen at a speed or extent that no one can cope with.

Genes aren't single purpose units. What might seem brilliant to achieve effect A may cause unintended consequences B-Z.

Nov 14, 2018
In the end the only real way to know if its safe is trial and error. that extra data you're waiting for isn't going to change that.
That sounds to me like an argument for not checking the fuel before you take off in the airplane.

Nov 14, 2018
So tell me then, at what point will you feel confident enough with the data we have to deem it safe? for a system that complex there will always be too many unknowns imo

Nov 14, 2018
GMO technology, whether transgenic or modification of current genes risks degradation and/or destruction of part of our food supply. People used to eat field corn (not just the sweet corn varieties) in America. No one eats field corn anymore since the GMO modifications.

Messing with the food supply is dangerous and there is nothing in place to insure that severe damage is not done to the supply.

Nov 14, 2018
By the time GMO reaches the grocery, I (reactor test operations engineer) will be glad to eat it, but all GMO is not an improvement - tomatoes.

To sweet corn lover above, you gotta know the difference between sweet corn and field corn. We have sweet corn for about a month every year, it almost does not need to be cooked. For a snack in the field, raw sweet corn is fine.

Nov 14, 2018
@Beethoven, I'll know it when I see it. And I think you're a lot more pessimistic than I am about exactly how much work it will take to figure all this out. We got quantum computers coming.

I'll tell you a couple things though that might make you feel better.

If it becomes a choice between this and letting a billion people starve to death, I guess we gotta do this.

And I don't advocate a moratorium on research.

Nov 14, 2018
No one eats field corn anymore since the GMO modifications.
@dogbert, nobody ate it before there were GMOs. They bred it for things other than being particularly palatable. And now even the sweet corn isn't very good.

Corn's pretty promiscuous. We might well have bred it to a state where it's inedible, and those characteristics may have permanently entered the rest of the corn too.

@Doug thinks there's still some around; so I might be wrong. I sure don't get any here in town. And his opinion of the square cardboard tomatoes seems to be about the same as mine. Damn, I sure do miss good tomatoes.

Nov 14, 2018
we don't exactly know how to play with DNA, but we know how to verify if there's something dangerous in food.
"this is an OGM food, does it contain Hg, lead, or any other dangerous chemical, in a bigger quantity compared to the non-OGM version?"
if yes ---> i will not eat it
if no ----> i will it it.

many people are scared because thinks that a DNA-modified vegetable can modify their DNA.
No, simply no.
it would be great if that was that simple, i would eat a gyraffe to grow taller

Nov 14, 2018
For what it's worth I'll continue buying the 'bio' stuff (I guess in the US it's called 'organic'). AFAIK the GMO and gene-edited foods are/will have to be clearly labeled as such.

Nov 14, 2018
Evolution has been editing plants genes for hundreds of millions of years.

And mostly blindly and randomly through mutations with natural selection 'weeding out' what will not survive. Somehow that's better than human scientist doing the gene editing?

Nov 14, 2018
Instead of using "soybean oil genetically tweaked to be good for your heart". Which is also a recognized endocrine disruption agent. Why not use a natural oil that is good for the heart and is not interrupt the endocrine system.
Monsanto has done a lot of damage to the genetic industry. Nobody trusts it anymore.
Unless you have long term studies of the "tweaked" genetic material. You just do not know exactly what the "tweak" will do. A single gene can be responsible for more that one action. Nobody really knows exactly what the tweak will produce. Because they only test for the one thing that the "tweak" is supposed to do. Not all things the "tweak" will do.

Nov 14, 2018
@Beethoven
"In the end the only real way to know if its safe is trial and error. that extra data you're waiting for isn't going to change that."

Trial and error is correct. But you do not trial on an entire population. We did that with Thalidomide that turned out well did it not?

Nov 19, 2018
Science, even with all its hubris, has no reliable method of simulating or even discovering all the minute, symbiotic adaptations that our food has experienced over the hundreds of thousands of years it has evolved right alongside humanity. One could accurately say that we and our food have concurrently developed in a harmonious relationship over that period, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. to logically discern our woeful incapacity to safely mirror such a process.

Nov 19, 2018
I just had a purple potato. Whats up with that?

"The French word vitelotte derives from the archaic French: vit, meaning "penis" (modern French bite), by analogy with the shape of the tuber. The first occurrence of the word is from 1812."

Oh.

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