Gene editing could revolutionize the food industry, but it'll have to fight the PR war GMO foods lost
Gene-edited foods will likely appear without undergoing a risk assessment by Canadian regulators
In his greenhouse at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., plant geneticist Zach Lippman is growing cherry tomatoes.
But they don't look like the ones that most people grow in their gardens and greenhouses.
Lippman's tomatoes have shorter stems and the fruit is more tightly clustered, looking more like grapes.
"With gene editing, we now have the ability to fine-tune at will," he said. "So instead of having black or white, small fruit [or] big fruit, you can have everything in between."
Lippman used CRISPR — a revolutionary gene-editing tool that can quickly and precisely edit DNA — to tweak three of the plant's genes, and make them suitable for large-scale urban agriculture for the first time.
With CRISPR, researchers can precisely target and cut any kind of genetic material. Don't want your mushrooms to turn brown after a few days? Remove the gene that causes that and problem solved.
There's a lot of excitement about the introduction of gene-edited products into the Canadian food system over the next few years, but a lot of trepidation as well.
The food industry's last foray into genetic engineering — genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — in the 1990s was a financial success. But the practice is an ongoing public relations nightmare, as many Canadians remain wary of products critics have labelled "Frankenfoods."
Public perception of modified foods
Currently, the only gene-edited product commercially available is a soybean oil being used by a restaurant chain in the American Midwest for cooking and salad dressings. It has a longer shelf life than other cooking oils and produces less saturated fat and no trans fat.
Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology at CropLife Canada, a trade association that represents Canadian manufacturers of pesticides and plant-breeding products, estimates the soybean oil might be in Canada in a year or two, followed by some altered fruits and vegetables.
Even then, he said, supplies will likely be limited while farmers and food companies determine if consumers will embrace genetically edited food.
All the major health organizations in the world, including Health Canada, have concluded that eating GMO foods does not pose either short or long-term health risks.
According to the World Health Organization, GMO goods currently approved for the market "have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health."
But Canadians remain stubbornly unconvinced — even though about 90 per cent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in Canada is genetically modified, as is almost all of the processed food we consume.
A 2018 poll by market research company Statista found only 37 per cent of people surveyed strongly or somewhat strongly agreed that GMOs were safe to eat, while 34 per cent strongly or somewhat strongly disagreed.
Industry representatives now say they spent too much time marketing their GMO products to farmers — and not enough time communicating the benefits to consumers.
"We spoke to two per cent of the population, who are those who farm," said Affleck. "And those who opposed the technology spoke to the other 98 per cent of the population."
"We thought it was just another transition in plant breeding," recalled Stuart Smyth, who holds the University of Saskatchewan's industry-funded research chair in agri-food innovation. "Nobody expected the environmental groups to develop into a political opposition."
With gene-edited foods, Smyth believes the industry needs to focus on public education to counteract what he calls the "propaganda" that will be coming from the other side.
CRISPR vs. GMO
Gene-edited foods will differ from GMOs in one important respect.
When foods are genetically modified, foreign genes are often added to an existing genome. If you want a vegetable to grow better in cold weather, you could add a gene from a fish that lives in icy water. That's what earned GMO products the "Frankenfoods" moniker.
With gene-editing tools like CRISPR, genes can be cut out, or "turned off," but nothing new is added to the genome.
Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, isn't convinced there's a significant difference.
"The new techniques of gene editing are clearly techniques of genetic engineering," she said. "They are all invasive methods of changing a genome directly at the molecular level.
"While we can produce organisms with new traits, that doesn't mean we know exactly all of what we've done to that organism. There can be many unintended effects," Sharratt further argued.
Unlike GMOs, which require extensive regulatory approval before going to market, gene-edited foods could appear without undergoing a risk assessment by Canadian regulators.
Health Canada doesn't require safety testing for new products if it determines those products aren't introducing "novel traits" into the food system. If it considers gene editing to be an extension of traditional plant breeding, no stamp of approval would be necessary.
That concerns Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, who thinks gene-edited products should be tracked and monitored "for those low-level health effects that some products might be contributing to."
Sharratt is also skeptical that gene editing will produce the benefits its supporters claim, pointing to "a biotech industry that has oversold technology and made all kinds of broad promises for the use of genetic engineering that didn't come to pass." Things like reduced pesticide use and greater drought resistance, for example.
Kuzma agrees that GMO researchers have sometimes been guilty of "perhaps overstating the promise of the technology and understating potential risk." But she believes those involved in developing gene-editing techniques want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
"They have a really sincere desire to be more open and transparent in the ways that they communicate and in the sharing of information," she said. "They do realize that the first generation of genetic engineering did not go so well from a public confidence perspective."
The GMO food industry has fiercely opposed one of the most obvious methods to boost public confidence: mandatory labelling, even as a 2018 survey from Dalhousie University showed an overwhelming majority of Canadians support it.
Sixty-four countries require mandatory labelling for GMO products. Canada is not one of them.
There are no plans to require mandatory labelling of gene-edited foods, either.
Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, a New York-based non-profit organization that researches genetic engineering, thinks that's a mistake.
"If you want people to make informed decisions and you want them to make that in a democratic fashion, then the more information you give them, the better," he said. "And so to deny people information about the content of their food is to violate a very basic democratic right."
Latham also believes that not labelling genetically engineered products increases consumer skepticism.
"[Consumers] don't really understand why, if a company wants to produce a product and advertise it and tell everybody how good it is, why they shouldn't also want to label it," he said.
Sharratt would like to see Canada adopt the approach taken by the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2018 that gene-edited foods must undergo the same testing as GMOs before being allowed on grocery store shelves.
Lippman doesn't believe that will happen. In fact, he thinks the potential of gene-edited foods is so great that the public will demand even greater access to such products.
"People will start to be educated and see that there's nothing harmful about it. It's completely fine. And then the only issue sticking out there will be whether we're over-promising. That'll be it."
Click 'listen' above to hear Ira Basen's documentary, The Splice of Life.
- This story has been updated to note that Health Canada has not yet ruled whether gene-edited food products introduce "novel traits" into the food system.Jan 15, 2020 4:42 PM ET