The genetic revolution is coming to your dinner plate.
Over the past year or so, researchers around the world have begun using a new gene-editing technique that has the potential to help stop world hunger, end the use of pesticides and improve our health.
The technique, known as CRISPR-Cas9, allows scientists to change, delete or replace DNA more easily than ever before. Theoretically, this could allow farmers to grow crops that are bigger, tougher and more nutritious. Hypoallergenic peanuts? Wheat that is invulnerable to mildew? Drought-resistant corn or healthier tomatoes? CRISPR could make all these things not only possible, but quick and cheap to produce.
As Newsweek pointed out in a feature story published earlier this year, the technology could be an invaluable tool in fighting world hunger, potentially making crops less susceptible to climate change and less reliant on chemicals like pesticides. CRISPR could also be used to grow certain crops in places where local conditions are currently inhospitable. And because CRISP could allow scientists to develop strains of fruits and vegetables with amplified health benefits, malnourished populations around the world may someday have access to more vitamin-rich foods.
Proponents of applying CRISPR to food production say precision sets the technology apart from how foods have been genetically modified in the past.
"What excites me about this is you can make a specific change and you’re left with just this change," Joyce Van Eck, who runs a lab at Cornell University that focuses on "biotechnological" approaches to crop improvement, told The Huffington Post. "When you do other types of mutagenesis, you don't know what else you’re hitting. It's so specific. It has almost drone-like precision."
Van Eck began looking into how she might employ CRISPR soon after reading the 2013 paper that showed how the technology edits genes in human and mouse cells. Like most scientists who have encountered the technology, she was was immediately intrigued by the possibilities. Last September, she published a study showing that CRISPR can be used to edit tomatoes with relative ease and precision. Now, she’s focused on increasing how many tomatoes can be grown at a time.
Wayne Parrott is a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Georgia who specializes in plant breeding and genomics. He's currently working in his lab to use CRISPR to transform soybeans. Modifying such a crop in the past, Parrott explained, was akin to replacing a whole page in a book. But with CRISPR, it's like just one word can be changed.
"You’ll be able to edit that one gene and not worry about everything else on the page," Parrott told HuffPost. "It’s going to revolutionize the development of new varieties."
The traditional process is also a lengthy one, Parrott said, sometimes taking as long as a decade to find a desirable trait in a crop -- such as the resistance to a disease -- and ensure it has remained in the variety. That process now has the potential to be considerably faster.
There's an ongoing heated debate over whether genetically modified organisms and products containing modified ingredients should be required to disclose that information on their labels. There is every reason to suspect CRISPR-edited foods will face a similar consumer backlash, even though they are modified by different processes.
David Just, co-director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, said CRISPR-edited food will face the problem of a skeptical, nervous public because people don't understand how the technology works. They're afraid of whether modified food is truly safe to eat -- despite the overwhelming majority of existing research on the topic finding that to be the case. (According to a Pew survey from earlier this year, 88 percent of scientists said genetically modified foods were safe to eat, but only 37 percent of the public agreed.)
Still, Just noted one key difference could lie in whom consumers believe the technology is benefiting. In the case of traditional GMOs, the perceived victors have been farmers and corporations like Monsanto. But, Just said, "if there is some way to have consumers have some stake and benefit to it and they can get over that unfamiliarity idea," they may be more open to it.
"Typically, however, that’s not the first place this kind of technology goes," he continued.
Parrott said he doesn’t anticipate the food industry adapting its approach to introduce the concept of CRISPR-edited food.
"I think the benefits of this technology are lost in translation to the grocery store," Parrott said. "The industry can really mess up CRISPR in public opinion if they repeat the mistakes of the past."
Companies are already moving full speed ahead on developing CRISPR-modified foods.
Executives at the biotech giant DuPont -- where they are currently growing corn and wheat plants edited with CRISPR -- predict that such edited foods could be on American tables in the next five years. They, and others in the game, hope that gene-edited crops will be largely exempt from regulation in the United States. According to the MIT Technology Review, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has told several companies that CRISPR-edited foods will not be regulated because they don't contain genes from other species.
Despite the lingering questions of regulation and consumer response, David Zilberman, an agricultural and environmental economist at the University of California, Berkeley, said he is optimistic that CRISPR could provide a way out of the current anti-GMO quagmire.
"If you want to solve climate change, how would you solve it? By going back to organic, going back to the Middle Ages? Or by trying to develop technologies that could help crops withstand climate change and help plants fight disease and insects?" Zilberman asked. "You cannot throw away the most important discovery in biology because you have a preconceived idea."
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lila Shapiro covers the science fiction of science, the imaginative ways scientists are trying to solve the world’s hardest problems. Email Lila@huffingtonpost.com