Agriculture

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  • Foods edited with gene-editing tool Crispr won’t be regulated as GMOs because of a law from the US Department of Agriculture that’s been in the works since September 2016.
  • In a statement issued last week, the USDA said that it had no plans to regulate crops “that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.”
  • The law applies to any plants with the exception of pests.
  • The move clears the way for a host of new foods – such as produce – that could be made using Crispr.

The next gene-edited food you eat probably won’t be a GMO (genetically modified organism) – at least not in the conventional sense of the term. Instead, it will probably have been made using Crispr, a new technique that lets scientists precisely tweak the DNA of crops to give it enhanced flavor, a longer shelf-life, or the ability to survive severe drought.

A recent decision from the US Department of Agriculture has given a pass for crops made using Crispr to avoid the stern and lengthy rules that are traditionally imposed on foods made using any kind of biotechnology, such as GMOs.

In a public update released last week, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the USDA had no plans to regulate plants “that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.”

That means crops modified using Crispr get the green light to move closer to our dinner plates, while traditional GMOs stay in the red, subject to harsh traditional USDA oversight.

The dull blade of GMOs vs the Crispr scalpel

The distinction comes down to the method of gene editing being used. Where GMOs hack away at a crop’s genome with a dull blade, tools like Crispr slice and reshape with scalpel-like precision. As a finished product, a husk of corn made using Crispr cannot be distinguished from a husk of corn made using old-school plant breeding.

By contrast, GMO corn typically involves adding a chunk of DNA from another living thing, such as a bacterium, meaning that its final product can ultimately be identified as GM.

To make a Crispr crop, scientists can make a meticulous edit right down to a single letter from a crop’s genome – the full set of genetic material composed of nucleotides denoted by the letters A, G, C, and T.

“Changing a G to an A is very different from bringing a gene from a bacteria into a plant,” Harvard geneticist George Church told Business Insider back in September 2016 when the law was first starting to take shape.

Several companies have their hands in the Crispr jar

It’s no surprise, then, that a handful of companies have their hands in the Crispr gene-editing jar.

Those companies include small ventures like Synthego, a Silicon Valley-based startup that aims to increase access to Crispr’s tools; agricultural giants like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, which aim to use the technique to make more robust row crops; and food companies like Mars, which are exploring ways to use Crispr to protect consumer goods like chocolate from the environmental onslaught of climate change.

Most importantly, however, is the work that scientists are doing on the potential applications of Crispr to help feed a burgeoning population on a planet with less and less farmable land.

In China, researchers are experimenting with using the technique to create cows that are better protected from tuberculosis, a chronic bacterial disease that can spread to humans and has fueled the scourge of antibiotic resistance.

Swedish scientist Stefan Jansson, a plant researcher at Umea University, has been experimenting with Crispr to make vegetables that are better protected from pests. Several years ago, Jansson made the first meal with Crispr produce using kale he grew in his backyard. Jansson told Business Insider that Crispr’s role in the future of food is already beginning to take shape.

“We’re not talking about the future. We’re talking about right now,” Jansson said.

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  • In a move aimed at securing its future, Monsanto has invested $125 million in a gene-editing startup called Pairwise.
  • The alliance could tee up Monsanto, long known for its controversial dealings with farmers and its role in popularizing genetically modified organisms, to introduce some of the first produce made using the blockbuster gene-editing tool Crispr.
  • In a call with Business Insider, the company hinted that strawberries or another type of fruit would be among the first Crispr produce to hit grocery-store shelves – a development it expects within five to 10 years.

In a move aimed at securing a place in the rapidly evolving food technology scene, the agricultural giant Monsanto has invested $125 million in a gene-editing startup called Pairwise.

The alliance could tee up Monsanto, long known for its controversial dealings with farmers and its role in popularizing genetically modified organisms, to introduce some of the first produce made using the blockbuster gene-editing tool Crispr. Sweeter strawberries with a longer shelf life could be among the earliest offerings.

The tool allows scientists to accurately target specific problem areas within the genome of a living thing, opening up the potential to tweak the DNA of everything from row crops like corn and soy to produce like apples and asparagus to make the produce taste sweeter, last longer on the shelf, and even tolerate drought or flooding.

Monsanto and Pairwise aim to get some of the first fruits and vegetables made with Crispr on grocery-store shelves within five to 10 years, Bob Reiter, Monsanto’s global vice president of research and development, told Business Insider on Monday.

If successful, the move could help the company skirt the misinformation that has plagued previous gene-editing tools like GMOs.

Gene editing is the future of food

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You’re probably familiar with traditional genetic modification – the process of tweaking DNA to produce juicy watermelon or apples that don’t brown. It’s something farmers have been doing with slow and painstaking effort for centuries using tools like plant breeding.

Foods produced using genetic modification, also known as GMOs, have attracted criticism from many who see the process as unnatural and therefore potentially dangerous.

GMOs were also popularized by two companies with checkered pasts: Monsanto was among a handful of companies that produced Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US military during the Vietnam War that has been linked to a higher risk of cancer and that Vietnam has blamed for sickening as many as 3 million people; DuPont was found liable of contaminating water supplies with cancer-causing chemicals at a spate of its Teflon plants.

But not only do the vast majority of scientists agree that GMOs are safe to eat, but genetically modified foods have played a significant role in addressing key problems facing the world. GMOs have helped farmers grow more food on less land, helped save cash crops like the Hawaiian papaya from pests and disease, and curbed global pesticide use.

The latest gene-editing tools are even better.

They’re cheaper, more accurate, and, perhaps most important, not yet tinged with the public distrust that now colors GMOs. These tools include Crispr, the technique that Pairwise aims to use in fruits and vegetables to create products like sweeter strawberries with a longer shelf life.

“Gene editing allows you to address problems that you can’t address with genetic modification and do so faster,” Tom Adams, Monsanto’s vice president of global biotechnology – who is leaving Monsanto to become CEO of Pairwise Plants – told Business Insider.

Crispr gets a green light

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Scientists are already using Crispr to make crops, cows, and even pigs that are healthier, better equipped to handle heat and drought, and more resistant to pests and disease.

Where traditional breeding methods and GMOs hack away at a crop’s genome with a dull blade, tools like Crispr slice and reshape with scalpel-like precision.

“Crispr is far and away technically more efficient and more effective at doing the kinds of things we want,” Reiter said.

Those things could include row crops like corn and soy that are less vulnerable to the increased drought and heat that will come with climate change or fruits and vegetables with more intense flavor or a longer shelf life.

It is partially because of Crispr’s accuracy that the US Department of Agriculture has chosen not to regulate close to a dozen crops edited with Crispr as GMOs. Instead, the crops have essentially been given a green light, meaning companies can move ahead with development and move them closer to our dinner plates.

Earlier this year, DuPont told Business Insider that it aimed to release the first product made using ingredients from Crispr corn within as few as four years. But Monsanto’s fruit would be the first Crispr produce.

Monsanto and Pairwise say they aim to see it in grocery stores before 2028.

“I myself am looking forward to a strawberry that would last a little longer,” Reiter said.