Genetically modified foods have been on the market for decades, but recent innovations in gene editing are opening the door to new frontiers and opportunities. These newer gene-editing techniques boast accuracy, speed and affordability, and companies are aiming to dispel the negative connotations of genetically modified foods and decrease the regulatory obstacles that can limit progress in the field.
However, although technological innovation is socially welcomed in most areas of life, when it comes to technology and food, the public is much warier about any possible adverse effects. While the rapid pace of innovation of gene editing is increasing the development of crop improvements, advocacy groups and a significant portion of the American public are becoming more hesitant about accepting the new developments into their everyday lives.
As discussed in a recent article from The Washington Post, new techniques for gene editing have led companies to create genetically modified foods that they claim are superior to conventional versions. For example, Calyxt, a subsidiary of France-based pharmaceutical company Cellectis, has developed the industry’s very first truly gene-edited food: a “healthier,” more nutritional soybean oil. The oil was developed by turning “off” genes that make up the trans fats in soybean oil, and therefore, according to Calyxt, contains more healthy fats. The development has provoked some alarm amongst consumer and environmental groups, due to the fact that Calyxt’s “healthier” soybean oil could potentially be used for products such as snacks, baked goods and salad dressings as quickly as by year end. These advocacy groups have petitioned food safety regulators to include additional safety reviews, as they believe newer gene-editing techniques have not been properly vetted.
According to a 2016 Pew Center Research report, almost 4 out of 10 Americans feel that genetically modified food is unhealthy in some way, which has led to the growth of the non–genetically modified organism (GMO) and “organic” food markets. Scientists, however, are hoping that CRISPR and TALENs, which are the most promising newer gene-editing tools, are met by the public with less hostility.
Due to issues such as climate change and disease, researchers claim that gene editing can help not only with nutritional value, better taste and more options for consumers (i.e., a strain of gluten-free wheat), but that farmers will also be helped by the advancements, through, for example, developing fruits such as tomatoes that are suited for shorter growing seasons. Researchers are also furthering developments in gene editing by creating methods to edit multiple genes within a single plant, which some scientists believe will be achieved within the next few years, and developing seeds that are customized to the environmental conditions in which they grow.
But advocacy groups are not fully convinced. They cite issues with the current approval process within the US Agriculture Department, under which it is not mandatory to conduct field tests or environmental assessments on gene-edited crops the way it is for more conventionally genetically modified crops. This is because most gene-edited crops do not contain foreign genes, and are not created using bacteria and viruses in the way traditional GMOs are made. And while the FDA does monitor food safety of gene-edited foods, it is only at the food manufacturer’s request. Advocacy groups have also raised concern regarding how these gene-edited foods will be labeled.
European Court Stirs Debate
While the US government has taken a more lax attitude towards gene-edited foods, in Europe, a decision was recently made specifically on the labeling of genetically edited foods, stating that gene-edited crops are GMOs and consequently must be evaluated as per the regulations that apply to GMOs. Many scientists were displeased with the decision, worrying that the decision would affect not just Europe, but the entire world.
Interestingly, the European ruling exempts crops that were genetically modified using older DNA-altering techniques, stating that those are not GMOS because they are “conventional” with a “long safety record.” This notion is being disputed by some scientists who argue conventional GMOs use x-rays and chemicals, which can produce numerous random mutations; gene editing methods such as CRISPR, on the other hand, are used in plant experiments to screen and remove unwanted mutations. But supporters of the European ruling point out that gene-editing techniques can miss their intended targets, unintentionally making changes to other stretches of DNA within the organism.
As the debate rages on, the US is moving forward fairly quickly with approving gene-edited foods, while Europe is clamping down on regulations to ensure their safety; two opposing perspectives that may ultimately affect imports of US foods into Europe.