Everyone grows up with different interests and choices in terms of TV entertainment, but for some generations there was one thing we all had in common―sitting through back to back commercials that interrupted our favorite shows every few minutes. From laundry detergent to shampoo, it seemed like every product was “New and Improved.” And, today, while we have the ability to fast forward or avoid TV commercials all together, social media and online platforms now bombard us with marketing messages.
Over the years the “New and Improved” messaging became more frequently associated with the foodstuffs we consume. Seems harmless, but the label hasn’t been monitored or measured, and historically reflected the seller’s opinion. So, how exactly do you define “New and Improved” when it comes to food? It could mean more marshmallows in a cereal box, less fat or sugar in a container of creamer, or more natural flavors in a frozen dinner entrée.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in genetically modified (GMO) crops and products produced from them, and they’re considered to be safe for human consumption.1 Many would consider the results that GMOs produce to be an improvement and that “New and Improved” would certainly apply. However, the movement in the marketplace now is away from GMO products due to perceived concerns over safety. Non-GMO labels are taking the place of “New and Improved” labels and you’re sure to notice as you stroll the grocery store aisles.
But a constant in the food industry is evolution, and one of the biggest changes on the horizon is the shift toward gene editing.
What is gene editing and how does it differ from genetically modifying?
To create genetically modified crops and animals, scientists will typically remove the preferred gene from one organism and randomly introduce it into another organism.2 A well-known genetically modified type of crop is Bt corn and cotton, where a bacterial gene was introduced that produces insecticidal toxins into the part of the plant where the insect eats, causing death to the insect.3
In simple terms, gene editing is a small, controlled tweak to a living organism’s existing DNA versus the introduction of a new, foreign gene. It is nearly impossible to detect whether an organism’s DNA has been edited or not because the changes are indistinguishable from naturally occurring mutations.7
In association with gene editing, you will often hear the term, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat). CRISPR is a common method, or tool, of gene editing. The science behind CRISPR is detailed and complex, but it is a naturally occurring enzyme in bacteria that allows scientists to edit DNA with precision.4
There are many pros to gene editing. It’s editing is less expensive, easier to use, and more accurate than genetic modification. This is creating opportunities by allowing the technology to expand to new startup biotechnology companies and academic scientists, outside of the traditional multinational corporations that dominate the genetically modified crops.
Is gene editing considered GMO?
Does gene editing fall under the category of a GMO? The answers depends on where you are located. Two major countries issued rulings around gene editing in 2018.
In March 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, issued the following statement, “USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.”5
This clarifies that gene editing will not be part of the same regulatory oversite as GMOs in the U.S. The fact that it is nearly impossible to detect whether an organism’s DNA has been edited or not, is a key point for the USDA. In addition, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that was signed into law in early 2020 reportedly includes provisions to support gene editing.
A few months after the U.S. ruling in 2018, the EU took a different route and announced that any organisms altered by gene-editing techniques would be subject to the same regulations as GMOs.6 With the EU’s ban on most production of GMO crops, many in the scientific community are concerned that this ruling many hold back cutting-edge research and innovation in gene-editing research.7
A crop that is well poised for gene editing is the peanut. Through a funding partnership between growers, shellers, and manufacturers, the Peanut Research Foundation initiated a research program in 2012 to map the genetic code of the peanut plant. The research was finalized in 2017 and the Peanut Research Foundation is now focusing on assisting researchers in developing traits that benefit the industry and consumers. Healthier and more shelf-stable high-oleic oil chemistry is already a reality in some peanut varieties, but helping breeders more easily incorporate this trait is only one goal. Other goals are resistance to common peanut diseases, drought tolerance, resistance to the fungal toxin aflatoxin, and conservation of key flavor traits. While peanut allergy is of huge importance to the industry, at this time, most of that work focuses on avoidance and treatment rather than breeding for non-allergenic peanuts.8
The marketing aspect of gene-edited crops will be key to their adoption and success. The Peanut Research Foundation is has expressed excitement about the new opportunities afforded by gene editing, but with a caveat. Due to EU’s insistence that gene editing is GMO, the Foundation is reluctant to label varieties as gene edited. USDA has clearly stated that gene editing is not GMO. While this distinction is debated, it is clear that gene editing offers a wonderful research tool to help discover how genes work.
Is gene editing the answer to the food allergy epidemic?
The traits mentioned above are all very valuable in terms of health and production enhancements, but success in these areas will likely lead to work on the allergy aspect of peanuts. Peanut allergies have become commonplace and a significant detriment to peanut and peanut product sales.
Peanuts are the number one cause of emergency-room visits by American children suffering allergic reactions to foods. According to The Economist, the number of children allergic to peanuts has tripled since 2001.9 More than one child in 50 is now allergic to peanuts.9
In addition to the increase in peanut allergies, the fear of impacting those that are allergic has hurt demand. For example, while only one child in a school may be allergic, often the entire student body and staff must limit their peanut consumption. And, the limitation of peanuts isn’t limited to schools – peanuts have also been largely eliminated from distribution on commercial airlines.
In a nutshell, gene editing is simply speeding up natural selection, which has been an approach taken to make crop improvements for centuries. Educating the consumer is the key to full adoption of this technology and process. Identifying or linking trait enhancements with gene editing will lead to assurance for the consumer that products are not only safe, but also truly “New and Improved.”
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Press Release dated 5-17-2016
- Steve Brown, Ph. D, Executive Director, The Peanut Research Foundation