Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Future of Food

By Adriana PalmieriPublished March 2, 2021

It is the final hour to save the planet before the damage humanity has inflicted becomes irreversible. One of the largest issues at hand is the way mankind produces food, and how it contributes to climate change. According to a report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, feeding the world’s population utilizes nearly three-quarters of the world’s ice-free surface, and contributes to 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting out fossil fuels isn’t enough — there needs to be a change in how people grow, harvest, and slaughter food to create sustainable lifestyles. This challenge seems insurmountable, but with new gene-editing technology, it is an achievable task. Unfortunately, the success of this tool relies largely upon the perception of its safety by consumers and on increased government investment. 

CRISPR, an acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” is a tool that can be customized to locate specific genetic base pairs in a gene and, with the Cas9 protein that cuts the DNA, the system can target a specific gene in crops and break it apart. This creates opportunities for multiple uses, such as removing a gene entirely or repairing a mutation in a gene. With these capabilities, we can change the traits of plants, from engineering resistance against disease to improving crop yield and shelf-life. However, the success of this tool depends on consumer psychology as well. A study published in Science Direct found that among American consumers, after reading a description about CRISPR technology and a hypothetical CRISPR modified crop, just 5.5% agreed with the statement “CRISPR technology in rice production can help solve environmental issues” and only 40.1% felt CRISPR was “safe for human consumption.” It’s clear there is skepticism about this technology, and a logical fear about the repercussions that can arise from changing the traits of our food. 

It is important this fear is addressed to prevent CRISPR from becoming as restricted as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Often CRISPR-modified and GM foods are viewed as the same, but a distinction exists, and one that ultimately makes CRISPR a safer technology. GMOs are most often created by introducing foreign DNA from a different species, making them into a transgenic organism. Tom Adams, cofounder and CEO of Pairwise, a company that focuses on creating CRISPR foods, calls this method “a little bit of a blunt instrument.” Researchers can’t control where the transgenes end up, and thus have to screen many plants to find the one where the insertion was properly made. CRISPR, compared to GMOs, does not permanently introduce foreign DNA into the host species, instead creating intrinsic changes as once the Cas9 protein breaks the DNA, the cell’s own repair mechanisms are put to use, thus avoiding the use of foreign DNA. The insertion or deletion of a few base pairs could inactivate or change a gene’s function, a process that can be likened to natural evolution. By avoiding transgenesis, the possibility of unanticipated effects that can occur in GMOs from the introduction of foreign DNA is eliminated. As a tool, this technology is more predictable and can provide numerous benefits to mitigate the effects of climate change on our planet. 

Recognizing CRISPR as a better technology, many companies are now getting a head start on funding projects with this tool. For example, the International Rice Research Institute has used CRISPR/Cas9 to modify three genes in a span of rice varieties and have effectively made them resistant to 95 out of 247 strains of the bacteria Xanthomonas oryzae pv. Oryzae, shortened as Xoo, a blight which can cause substantial yield loss. Another company, Yield10, aims to improve the yields of crops such as canola and soybeans and increase their oil content. Pairwise is working on changing traits of our food to make them more appealing to consumers; in one instance, it is trying to use CRISPR to make fruits and vegetables smaller and easier to snack on as it has found this increases consumption. The application of CRISPR technology is far-reaching, and can play a large role in food production. The United States should look to take part in supporting this novel technology as a solution for sustainable food production.

In order to boost this field, the United States needs to expand agritech. Until 2008, the share of total agricultural R&D conducted in the United States by the public sector was stable at around 50%. By 2013, that share had fallen to under 30% as measured by the decrease in government spending. This decrease led to the U.S. falling from its position as a top global performer of public agricultural R&D, surpassed by China in 2009 as they increased spending. China spent $43 billion dollars on acquiring one of the four largest agribusinesses, Syngenta, to expedite the process of finding sustainable options for the future of agriculture. Its investment has been effective, as today China publishes twice as many papers on CRISPR agriculture compared to the United States. The U.S. needs to put more funding into the agritech field or risk falling behind on a solution that could help protect our planet from the effects of climate change. 

There isn’t time to waste on this matter, and we can’t wait for consumers to adjust to the idea of gene-edited food. It’s important we establish the safety and repudiate false notions of this technology in order to reap the full benefits it can provide. 

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