What is CRISPR? Pronounced “crisper,” Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, 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. So that mushroom that turns brown after you slice it? No more. With CRISPR, scientists can literally edit organisms, removing the bits that lead to unfavorable outcomes. Nature.com uses the example of bags of sliced apples to demonstrate how CRSPR works. Shoppers who purchase the apples can leave the slices out for snacking, because of a feat of genetic engineering that prevents their flesh from browning when exposed to air. The ‘Arctic apple’ is one of the first foods to be given a trait intended to please consumers rather than farmers.
According to Food Dive, 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 ten years can now take a single crop cycle.
So, what is the opposition to CRSPR? FlipBoard explains that the food industry missed a chance to educate the public when the earlier wave of genetically engineered food (GMOs), made it to the market. “There was never any conversation with consumers around what is this and what did it mean,” he says. “Fast forward now today, there’s a lot of debate around GMOs and food. The public, rightly, is interested in knowing what’s in their food.” The key now for the food industry is transparency. CRSPR is not a secret. “Those in technology have to be more transparent and be much more engaged in a public conversation and dialogue, in order to answer those questions, address the skepticism and ultimately result in earning consumer trust,” according to Charlie Arnot. These companies want consumers to know that CRISPR isn’t like other forms of genetic engineering. CRISPR changes the way genes are expressed; it doesn’t add genetic material from another species.
Drought-resistant corn, mildew-resistant wheat, and non-browning mushrooms sound like things of the future. Well, the future is here with CRSPR. Food Dive asserts that the concept of bioengineering food, agriculture and crops isn’t new. Farmers, plant biologists and breeders have been doing this for decades. 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.