CRISPR licensing deal could lead to better traits in food, reduce waste
J.R. Simplot said this week that it's the first agricultural company to achieve gene-editing licensing rights. The Idaho-based firm made the joint intellectual property licensing agreement for foundational CRISPR-Cas9 and related gene-editing tools with Corteva Agriscience, which is DowDuPont's agriculture division, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Simplot, which provides fresh, frozen and chilled products including potatoes, avocados and strawberries, said it plans to use the technology to develop desirable traits in certain fruits and vegetables and bring those products to the U.S. market to benefit farmers and consumers.
The company hopes the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tools can help limit waste in potatoes, avocados and strawberries, along with other produce, due to poor storage or shelf life. Annually, 35% of fresh potatoes valued at $1.7 billion have to be tossed as a result of bruising and browning, according to the Journal for Consumer Affairs.
It's easy to see why Simplot would want permission to use this gene-editing technology if it can help reduce losses by extending the shelf life of its products.
Food waste is a huge problem. U.S. consumers throw out about 150,000 tons of food each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That equates to about 26% of food wasted by Americans from 2007 to 2014, along with the 30 million acres of farmland used to grow it. While several large U.S. food companies and groups — including Kroger, Walmart, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association — have been focusing on reducing waste, critics and the industry itself contend that more needs to be done.
CRISPR allows researchers to quickly and accurately pinpoint areas inside the genome of crops such as corn, soybeans, strawberries or apples. The tool can then manipulate DNA to make the crops or produce sweeter or more flavorful, increase their tolerance to drought or floods or extend their shelf life.
For grocery stores, it could provide an advantage as they waste less food, keep products on the shelf longer and are able to provide better-looking items — all of which potentially could lower prices, save them money and generate more sales. But, ultimately, if shoppers don't want to buy it, retailers won't carry it.
Despite the potential advantages of the technology, many U.S. consumers remain leery of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and prefer their food and beverage ingredients to be GMO-free. It's possible these people will have similar concerns about changing the genetic coding of food. They may will want their food to be natural and oppose any changes to it. Others could be squeamish about having it altered in any way.
It's hard to predict whether the CRISPR gene-editing technology will be able to win over consumers skeptical of GMOs if their minds are made up. Supporters point out that the goal is more sustainable produce, higher yields on less land and fewer pesticides, water and labor requirements — all issues that are increasingly top of mind for today's shoppers. But it remains to be seen whether those potential advantages will be convincing enough.
Once gene-edited produce hits the shelves — Simplot predicts it could take five years or more for new potato varieties — manufacturers and retailers will need to do some significant marketing and outreach to allay public concern. The Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of Americans think GMOs are unhealthy, according to The Washington Post.
While they may not view gene editing in the same negative light, producers and retailers should still take the possibility into account. They would be wise to learn from the missteps of GMOs when it comes to promoting the technology and incorporating it into a plethora of products. Otherwise, it could be a daunting climb for a still largely unproven, yet promising, technology.
- Associated Press Genetics technology could lead to more crops, fresher food