The next generation of biotech food is headed for the grocery aisles, and first up may be salad dressings or granola bars made with soybean oil genetically tweaked to be good for your heart.
By early next year, the first foods from plants or animals that had their DNA “edited” are expected to begin selling. It’s a different technology from today’s controversial “genetically modified” foods, more like faster breeding that promises to boost nutrition, spur crop growth, and make farm animals hardier and fruits and vegetables last longer.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has declared gene editing one of the breakthroughs needed to improve food production so the world can feed billions more people amid a changing climate. Yet governments are wrestling with how to regulate this powerful new tool.
And after years of confusion and rancor, will shoppers accept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in disguise?
“If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they’ll embrace the products and worry less about the technology,” said Dan Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor and chief science officer for Calyxt Inc., which edited soybeans to make the oil heart-healthy.
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GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that were mixed with another species’ DNA to introduce a specific trait they’re “transgenic.” Best known are corn and soybeans mixed with bacterial genes for built-in resistance to pests or weed killers. Despite international scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to eat, some people remain wary, and there is concern they could spur herbicide-resistant weeds.
Now gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, promise to alter foods more precisely and cheaply without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism’s own genetic alphabet.
Researchers are pursuing more ambitious changes: wheat with triple the usual fiber or that’s low in gluten. Mushrooms that don’t brown and better-producing tomatoes. Drought-tolerant corn, and rice that no longer absorbs soil pollution as it grows. Dairy cows that don’t need to undergo painful de-horning, and pigs immune to a dangerous virus that can sweep through herds.
Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening, a so far unstoppable infection that’s destroying Florida’s famed oranges. First they must find genes that could make a new generation of trees immune.