Sasan Amini is the CEO and co-founder of Clear Labs. He holds a Ph.D. in genomics from Princeton University and spent three years at Illumina, the market leader in next-generation sequencing solutions.
CRISPR is one of the fastest, most precise and impactful methods for genetic engineering the world has ever seen. Monsanto recently acquired the first commercial license of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology from the Broad Institute, making it the first license of the technology for agricultural use. DuPont has been working with Caribou Biosciences for more than a year and is already growing CRISPR-edited corn and wheat plants in field trials. Scientists have been using CRISPR on plants and animals to include mushrooms that don’t brown as quickly in the refrigerator, drought-tolerant corn and virus-resistant pigs.
The increasing number of publications on the CRISPR/Cas system, the rising number of patents and the additional funding allocated for CRISPR research are all signs that CRISPR will be a core piece of the machinery in the future of bioengineering.
What’s more, the USDA has already stated that it will not regulate these foods because the technology does not necessarily involve inserting new genes into organisms, as today’s recombinant DNA technology requires, but rather snips pieces of an organism’s existing genes.
The groundbreaking technology, combined with an open regulatory environment, means that CRISPR is well on its way to being one of the most quickly adopted technologies in agriculture and food’s history. What previously took 10 years can now take a single crop cycle.
Manufacturers do not have to wait for CRISPR to “happen” to the food industry — it’s already here. Companies could begin producing and selling mushrooms that don’t brown, meat that is more tender and cabbage that is more flavorful before long. In fact, it’s happening in places like China, where technologies very similar to CRISPR have been in play in the food industry already.
Retailers and manufacturers should familiarize themselves with the technology, and they should do so quickly. Food companies need to begin learning how this new kind of genetic engineering changes the industry. It also needs to define the technology’s application and its opportunity in food before it starts impacting the system at large, not after.
Determine how CRISPR can be used in the food industry
There are already a number of great sources on what CRISPR is and how it works: TechCrunch’s great explainer, WIRED’s big feature and Nature’s deep-dive on the history of CRISPR. For the purposes of this article, CRISPR is a naturally occurring system that simplifies and accelerates the task of manipulating a genome. It makes the process of genome editing more efficient, the outcome more programmable, and the changes more subtle.
Scientists worldwide are in awe of the discovery for its potential impact on things like agricultural and crop trait enhancement, human gene therapy, livestock breeding, eliminating antibiotic resistance and public health applications like mosquito sterilization, to name a few.
CRISPR has already been implemented for genome editing in plants, including tobacco, soy, wheat, rice, potatoes, oranges and tomatoes.
On the animal side, applications like improving the yield of animal breeding through desirable alteration and selection of herd genetics are clear examples. There have been instances involving pigs, beef and salmon. The convenience of genome editing through CRISPR/Cas 9 system have made other applications, like generating more tender beef, possible.
On the bacterial side, all classes of bacteria across the food spectrum including fermentative, probiotic, spoilage agents and food pathogens can be impacted by the CRISPR-based systems. A good example is vaccination of starter cultures against predatory bacteriophages.
Those are a few of the upstream, direct applications, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision how it will impact retailers and manufacturers who are selling food to consumers as well. The combinations of what can be done with CRISPR are near limitless, but the biggest opportunities for the food industry include:
Improving food safety by knocking out antibiotic resistance, baking in immunity to pathogens like salmonella
Increasing shelf life of perishable foods
Developing new products that taste better and have other desirable traits for consumers
There are risks, as there are always are with new technologies. CRISPR isn’t perfect. But if manufacturers can rally the industry to truly understand the risk and opportunity tradeoff, the more upside they’re likely to see and the better chance the food industry has at encouraging public acceptance of the new technology.
The regulatory discussion
This is the core debate: Are CRISPR-edited foods “non-GMO” if a new gene from another organism hasn’t been inserted? The USDA says it won’t regulate CRISPR-edited foods in the same way as other genetically modified organisms. Organic certification groups also do not certify foods that have been edited using CRISPR.
The problem is that the food industry doesn’t have a good foundation from which to build. Existing GMO regulations are already sorely outdated. The definition of a genetically modified organism is under debate and scrutiny. CRISPR aside, the debate is more likely to be engineered around protecting special interests than actually coming up with responsible ways to keep consumers safe and informed while allowing the food industry to adopt new technologies.
Manufacturers have to first define the technology, then recognize that labels still matter. Consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. There’s a huge opportunity for the food industry to embrace CRISPR as a fundamentally good thing, but it can’t be shrouded in mystery. Consumers today won’t stand for that. Support for the technology will be stymied just as quickly and fiercely as support for GMOs has been in the past if companies aren’t upfront about their use of CRISPR.
The food industry has a unique opportunity to reset the terms of the debate and start from a position of strength and understanding. Producers have the opportunity to influence the conversation and help to develop smart regulations that properly protect consumers and encourage transparency. The industry has to align itself with its end-customer – the public – because if it can garner the broad support of consumers and regulators by taking a measured but enthusiastic approach to this new technology, the food industry wins.
Invest in the right technology
Regulation is only part of the conversation. When CRISPR arrives, consumers must be able to trust that products are safe, authentic and up to quality standards. Food safety and quality technologies were largely driven by previous generation DNA-based testing and engineering methods. CRISPR is a giant leap forward.
CRISPR makes compliance and certification more complicated because it creates scarless gene-editing, meaning there is no fast, efficient way to detect whether or not a food has been modified. CRISPR changes are invisible to existing technologies like PCR. Even if manufacturers wanted to inform consumers that a product is “CRISPR-modified,” they simply can’t today. Technologies like whole genome sequencing can potentially help, but this is still too expensive to be deployed at scale.
To keep up, producers must invest in food transparency technologies that will allow us to defend our claims on the promise of CRISPR. The food industry has largely operated under a reactive mindset, developing new technology and safety and quality protocols only in response to outside pressures, recalls or supply chain threats. The food industry is seeing a tremendous shift towards a more proactive approach thanks to the Food Safety and Modernization Act, enabling manufacturers to be a step ahead of the game. And that should be the goal. Companies have to be able to guarantee that CRISPR technology is safe for consumers, even before they ask.
The food industry will be redefined by CRISPR
The concept of bioengineering food, agriculture and crops isn’t new. Farmers, plant biologists and breeders have been doing this for decades, if not centuries. The food industry has seen or heard of many similar examples for many years: pest, herbicide, disease and drought resistance. With CRISPR-based systems, the industry is simply evolving the engineering toolbox.