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The first thing to know about gene editing (which uses a technology called CRISPR-Cas9) is that, like it or not, it’s here to stay. It’s being used in every genetic lab in the country. Industry is already making use of it for laundry detergents, water treatment and the development of drought-resistant and pest-resistant plants.
Gene editing is entirely different from genetic modification. With GMO foods, scientists transplant genes from one species into another – theoretically, they can put genes from a fish into a pig. Gene editing doesn’t introduce anything new, it just makes little tweaks to existing DNA at specific locations. If you had a word processing document open on your computer, gene editing would be like moving a comma or a period; genetic modification would be like pasting in a YouTube video.
Is gene-edited food safe? Let’s be honest: No one knows. The assumption is that it is, but that’s been the assumption with GMO for years, despite quite a lot of evidence that indicates otherwise. With gene editing, though, we’re not talking about putting an oyster gene into a goat. We’re talking about little tinkerings that theoretically could produce an awful lot of good. It’s hoped that one day gene editing will allow us to do things like remove the mutation of the BRCA breast-cancer gene from a child’s genetic code. Right now, gene editing is being used to ward off livestock disease and to lower the amount of gluten in wheat. Additionally, it’s being used in potatoes to keep them fresher for longer and to lessen the amount of carcinogens formed by the process of frying potatoes. It’s also been used to change the mix of fatty acids in soybeans for a healthier soybean oil and to make mushrooms that don’t brown, although most of these food developments have yet to hit the market.
One problem is that industry is already on board with gene editing, and that means there are enormous financial stakes in the whole gene-editing enterprise. It’s certain that the arguments on both sides of the gene-editing question will be heavily influenced by financial, business, regulatory and marketing considerations, and it will be much harder to know what’s really true and what isn’t.
The fact is that gene-edited foods could be hugely valuable in many ways. Or they could be a disaster in ways no one could have anticipated. No one knows for sure, and no one can know for sure because they’re too new, there are few independent studies and gene-edited foods haven’t been around long enough for anyone to really know what the long-term effects are.