Opinion: CRISPR replacing GMOs – is it a good thing?

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Being in a good mood, you invite some of your scientific friends from work over on Friday for a little bit of an end of the week unwind cocktail party. You also invite some of your favorite next-door neighbors who, by and large, work in non-scientific pursuits.
What could be lovelier you think? All your favorite folk in one place? Nothing can go wrong right?

The evening begins as you envisioned it. Fun, jokes and story telling. A little vino. A fitting finish to a hectic work week.

Until …

Your closest neighbor who lives just one door down tosses this into the discussion mix, “I just swore off eating anything produced by genetically modified organisms. Did you see the latest? The courts think Roundup can cause cancer and there are bunches of people now taking Monsanto to court!”

There it is. GMOs.

The evening quickly deteriorates with your scientific friends defending GMOs and your neighbors offering up all kinds stories on the evils of GMOs. And suspicions from your neighbors that your scientific friends may not always act in the best interests of the public.

In retrospect the arguments were predictable.

The Pew Charitable Trust has made something of a cottage industry out of surveying people’s view on GMO’s

One of their most recent from December of 2016 found 39 percent of Americans believe GMO foods are worse for one’s health .

The same survey found half of Americans who have heard a lot about genetically-modified foods see them as health risks.

I sense that the public sentiment – increasingly caring about organics, fitness and natural ingredients – is turning against GMOs. This is a problem for Big Ag, which has made billions from GMO technology.

But Big Ag has a new weapon – a new fast and cheap way to edit food’s DNA.

And it will likely replace GMOs over time.

It’s called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat – CRISPR for short – new gene editing tool that turns a plant’s genes on and off almost as easy as it is to switch on and off a light bulb.

And it’s also totally possible to build enzymes to rewrite a plant’s DNA. Easily. Big Ag can ditch GMOs with their negative publicity and stigma for something new and shiny.

Well as it turns out, Big Ag companies including DuPont, BASF, and Monsanto (now Bayer that it’s gained ownership of Monsanto) are receiving licenses from the Broad Institute who holds, pending a patent fight with the University of California, the intellectual property rights linked to CRISPR.

And the best part of the deal for Big Ag … at least for now … is there is no, nada, zero, bumpkis, zilch, U.S. federal regulation. Yeah none.

How can that be? It turns out there’s something of a loophole in the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000.

While the act gives USDA the power regulate GMOs to protect U.S. agriculture, the environment and the economy, CRISPR falls outside the scope of the act.

In 2015, GMOs essentially are created by swapping a plant’s genes with DNA from a different organism. BUT CRISPR edited crops don’t contain foreign DNA.

When the rubber hits the road, the USDA has already declined to regulate CRISPR created mushrooms and apples that don’t brown.

As of last month, USDA has recognized more than 20 applications of CRISPR including turning off the gene responsible for trans fats in soybean oil.

The Food and Drug Administration is also woefully behind when it comes to CRISPR oversight. While FDA officials are mulling over what to do with CRISPR and whether gene-edited foods carry safety risks, right now the only way FDA can get involved is if a food maker requests consultation.

And in the real world that’s not likely to happen.

So let’s review. We got a fast moving technological gene-editing technique called CRISPR that’s the center of a yet to be finalized massive patent fight and for which the U.S. government has no current oversight. What can possibly go wrong?


About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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