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2019 Will Bring New, Healthier Foods. All Thanks to Gene Editing

November 16, 2018
Starting in 2019, shoppers will be able to buy products such as salad dressings and granola bars that are healthier thanks to gene-editing.

In an article for the Associated Press, reporter Lauren Neergaard dives into the promising potential of gene-editing as it is used in both plants and animals to make better products for human consumption.
“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 than 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.”

As Neergaard also notes (and as we’ve covered here and here), gene-editing also holds the potential to save industries that have been ravaged by plant diseases, such as the orange industry in Florida.

The fate of gene-editing to solve these type of challenges, however, will ultimately be decided by consumers' acceptance of the technology. It's important to note though, that the products set to hit grocery stores next year are the result of making edits to an organism’s own DNA.

One such product comes from biotech firm Calyxt, led by chief science officer Dan Voytas, who has edited the genes of soybeans so that the versatile crop contains higher levels of healthier oils.
“Those new Calyxt soybeans? [Dan] Voytas’ team inactivated two genes so the beans produce oil with no heart-damaging trans fat and that shares the famed health profile of olive oil without its distinct taste.”

Another food category that could hit stores soon as a result of enhancements made through gene-editing is milk that has been produced by cows without horns.
The hornless calves? Most dairy Holsteins grow horns that are removed for the safety of farmers and other cows. Recombinetics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA instructions from naturally hornless Angus beef cattle.

“Precision breeding,” is how animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, explains it. “This isn’t going to replace traditional breeding,” but make it easier to add one more trait.

How these products are then traded with other countries, or regulated here in the U.S., is a work in progress, however.
The Agriculture Department says extra rules aren’t needed for “plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding,” clearing the way for development of about two dozen gene-edited crops so far.

In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 proposed tighter, drug-like restrictions on gene-edited animals. It promises guidance sometime next year on exactly how it will proceed.

Because of trade, international regulations are “the most important factor in whether genome editing technologies are commercialized,” USDA’s Paul Spencer told a meeting of agriculture economists.

Europe’s highest court ruled last summer that existing European curbs on the sale of transgenic GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods, too.

But at the World Trade Organization this month, the U.S. joined 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Argentina and Brazil in urging other countries to adopt internationally consistent, science-based rules for gene-edited agriculture.

BIO has noted its support for the U.S. in joining the 12 other nations to encourage science-based regulations for gene-edited agriculture – which includes both plants and animals. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the lead agency in following this guidance as it has stated it will not regulate gene-edited plants that could otherwise be created through conventional breeding. Though USDA still retains the authority to regulate many of these products once in the market if any problems should arise.

BIO knows that consumers may still have concerns about gene-edited products even if proper oversight exists. After all, new technologies are inherently met with skepticism. Just ask the creator of the microwave. But we also know that researchers working with this burgeoning technology are taken every precaution possible. As Van Eenennaam attests to when speaking with the Associated Press:
Scientists are looking for any signs of problems. Take the hornless calves munching in a UC-Davis field. One is female and once it begins producing milk, Van Eenennaam will test how similar that milk’s fat and protein composition is to milk from unaltered cows.

“We’re kind of being overly cautious,” she said, noting that if eating beef from naturally hornless Angus cattle is fine, milk from edited Holsteins should be, too.

Gene-edited products should not be met with skepticism but instead with optimism. Aside from the handful of products that will hit stores in 2019, researchers are determined to enhance other crops for the greater good. This includes enhancements to critical crops in poor countries, such as cassava (potato). As Jennifer Kuzman of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University sums it up best, “We think it’s [gene-editing] going to really revolutionize the industry.”