CRISPR
© Rick Dalton/plainpicture
What we eat could be about to undergo a big change
You have probably heard of CRISPR, the gene-editing technique set to cure diseases and modify our DNA. The real revolution, however, may be in its ability to transform our food. "The biggest impact is going to be in agriculture," Jennifer Doudna, who helped develop the method, told New Scientist earlier this year.

This is because older, cruder techniques make it expensive to develop genetically modified (GM) foods, so they are mostly the domain of big multinationals. In contrast, CRISPR has made genetic tinkering cheap and easy.
"It takes a firm on average 13 years and costs $130 million to launch a GM crop"
"Rather than just four or five large multinationals dominating the market, you're going to have an explosion of companies all over the world innovating and coming up with improved crop varieties," says Tony Moran of US biotech company Cibus.

But just how far this revolution goes depends on how countries regulate CRISPR foods. The US and some others have decided that simple gene tweaks don't require special regulation. But the world's biggest market - the European Union - has yet to decide. A court decision due later this month could determine the technique's fate in the EU, which is historically anti-GM, and perhaps the world.

So why are people keen to CRISPR our food? For starters, genome-edited plants and animals could make what we eat safer by removing allergens and cancer-causing substances such as acrylamides. CRISPR could also make crops resistant to diseases and more nutritious.

We need the next generation of food to tackle challenges such as a growing population and climate change, says Nigel Halford of plant research centre Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. "The idea that we don't need new technologies is utterly ridiculous," he says.

We have been here before, though. Critics of GM crops say they were supposed to have all kinds of benefits, from boosting food production to helping the environment, but haven't delivered. That is probably wrong. For instance, a 2018 meta-analysis found that GM maize yields are up to 25 per cent higher. Several reports, including one in 2016 from the US National Academies of Sciences, also suggest that GM crops are no worse for the environment, and are sometimes better.

What is true is that most GM crops are designed to enrich big companies. That is because it takes on average 13 years and costs $130 million to launch one. "When you have an intensely demanding regulatory system, only big multinationals can afford to do it," says Joyce Tait at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, who studies the governance of new technologies.

CRISPR means you no longer need to be Monsanto to launch a new crop. "We are a small company," says Federico Tripodi of Calyxt, a US firm that has just begun growing CRISPR-modified soybeans on a commercial scale.

By opening biotech up to small companies and non-profit groups, CRISPR offers us a chance to avoid the mistakes made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and ensure more people benefit, says Tait (see "It's ok that the public rejected GM food - after all, we did ask"). "Whether it happens or not depends entirely on how we regulate this technology," she says.

The deciding factor is whether regulators see CRISPR as a smarter form of conventional breeding or treat it as a new form of GM. The science is clear. All breeding involves genetic modification of some kind. Farmers who select a prize cow to mate are choosing to propagate its genes. Older genetic modification techniques add extra DNA to a plant or animal - often taken from a different organism. It is an old and clumsy technology, says Peter Beetham, CEO of Cibus. "We see GMOs as Windows 95."

By contrast, the most common use for CRISPR is to change just one or two DNA letters. Such mutations occur with no human intervention all the time, so CRISPR proponents argue that there is no logical reason to treat them differently.

"Conventional breeding can result in hundreds of unpredictable changes to an animal's DNA," says Kris Huson of Recombinetics, a Minnesota firm that has made hornless dairy cattle by inducing a mutation already present in some beef cattle. "Gene editing results in an intentional, predictable one."

In fact, plant breeders in the 1950s gave up waiting for natural mutations and started inducing them with radiation or toxic chemicals, called mutagenesis. Much of our food was created in this way, such as some wheat varieties and red grapefruit. "From a scientific point of view, regulating genome editing and mutagenesis differently makes absolutely no sense," says Halford.

Natural mutations

Anti-GM activists disagree. They want all edited crops to be treated as GM. "It is not whether or not something similar already exists, or whether the modification could occur naturally," says Franziska Achterberg of Greenpeace's European unit.

Only a few countries have made their position clear so far. In the US, crops created by minor gene-editing tweaks are being treated as normal, but animals created in the same are subject to additional regulation.

Matters could be complicated by a new law requiring GM foods to be labelled as "bioengineered" in the US. The biotech industry fears this label will deter both consumers and investors.

That might not be true: firms that labelled food as "genetically engineered" because of a short-lived law in Vermont say they saw no fall in sales. There was also a slight fall in opposition to GM in the state, according to research published last week.

However, it seems likely that CRISPR-edited foods will not require labelling. The details were meant to be finalised this month, but the process is running late.

As for the rest of the world, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Chile will regulate on a case-by-case basis, with most edited varieties being treated as normal ones. Colombia could soon follow suit - it has already said it will treat gene-edited cacao (chocolate) as a normal crop.

The big question is what will happen in the largest market of all: the EU. It was supposed to make a final ruling several years ago, but still has not done so.

All eyes are on the European Court of Justice, which is hearing a case challenging the definition of GMOs. A legal opinion published early this year hints that the ruling will be that gene-edited organisms do not count as GM under EU law. If so, it could spark a massive CRISPR boom globally. The decision is expected on 25 July, so watch this space - your food may never be the same.