How CRISPR gene-editing technology could change the way we eat

Catherine Cheney 

June 14, 2024

A precise gene-editing technology can make crops tastier, more nutritious, and more resilient to climate change. But can it avoid the “GMO curse”?

Could genetically modified and genetically engineered crops be the key to feeding a growing global population in the face of climate change?

Changes to plant DNA can improve the nutritional content of foods, help crops withstand extreme weather conditions, and enable farmers to grow more food on less land.

But despite scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, they have faced significant regulatory hurdles and public resistance over the past two decades.

For example, in the Philippines, there is an ongoing legal battle over the cultivation of golden rice, named for the yellow color that comes from the addition of vitamin A, which prevents childhood blindness. It’s an example of how fear and uncertainty have blocked GMOs from widespread use.

However, whereas GMOs involve inserting foreign DNA from other organisms, newer and more targeted gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR may be more acceptable to consumers. CRISPR makes precise changes to genes without introducing traits from another species.

Around the world, efforts are underway to use CRISPR to edit foods — making them tastier, more nutritious, or easier to eat — or even to make crops more resilient to climate change. If these genetically engineered foods can avoid the “GMO curse,” they could unlock new opportunities for low- and middle-income countries to address hunger, combat poverty and inequality, and even cut carbon emissions.

“New technologies bring new fears, and that’s okay,” said Paul Chavarriaga, who leads the Gene Editing Platform at the Biodiversity International & CIAT Alliance.

But with CRISPR, scientists aren’t inventing anything that nature has not already invented, he explained. They are taking traits that are already in plants and switching them on or off while maintaining all of the other desired traits.

“We basically do, or repeat, or copy, what nature has already done,” Chavarriaga said. “It means the resistance to disease is already there. I’m not creating anything. I’m just copying when nature gives me.”

A race against time

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a defense system that protects microbes like bacteria from invaders. It has a wide range of potential applications, from medicine to agriculture. CRISPR was first harnessed as a tool for gene editing in 2012, and in 2020, the scientists behind this discovery won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

In addition to its precision, CRISPR is quicker and cheaper than previous DNA editing techniques. While traditional plant breeding methods can take decades, CRISPR enables plant scientists to introduce genes with desired characteristics quickly.

In 2022, Kenya’s government lifted a 10-year ban on cultivation and importation of GM crops in a bid to address the runaway food shortage. Advocates against GM foods have opposed the move, citing safety issues.

This speed factor is critical given the rapidly increasing food insecurity worldwide and the worsening impacts of climate change — creating what Chavarriaga calls “a race against time.”

The main GMO crops are corn and soybeans, which are used mostly for feeding animals, but CRISPR is being used to improve food for humans. Through traditional plant breeding methods, plant scientists are limited in what they can select for, and often, they prioritize increasing yield or maximizing shelf life.

“Usually the consumer is left out of that, and you get, you know, tomatoes that are like cardboard that can last a long time,” said Tom Adams, CEO of Pairwise, a North Carolina-based startup using CRISPR to create foods that are more appealing to consumers and growers alike — from better-tasting mustard greens to pit-free cherries.

“If you get more than three or four traits that breeders have to select for, the fifth, sixth, and seventh start being left behind,” Adams said. “So [CRISPR] gives you the opportunity to really do things that can satisfy the consumer, satisfy the grower, and satisfy the supply chain.”

Last year, Pairwise introduced the first CRISPR gene-edited food to the US market: It changed a single enzyme that gives mustard greens the burn-in-your-nose sensation in order to make them more appetizing for consumers compared to less nutritious varieties of lettuce.

Pairwise has developed proprietary tools to apply CRISPR to plant genetics and is partnering with groups looking to change flavor, improve yields, or adapt plants for new growing environments. For example, it is exploring gene edits that would make cherries grow in bushes rather than trees so that they can be protected under hoop houses and grow in more places.

Bringing gene editing to lower-income countries

A growing number of plant scientists in low—and middle-income countries are using CRISPR to improve productivity and yields.

One example is teff, an ancient grain packed with nutrients that is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. A major issue with teff production is lodging, which is when the stems aren’t strong enough to hold the grass upright, causing the plant to fall over. This is particularly concerning as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events such as strong winds and heavy rainfall.

Now, plant scientists at The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research are using CRISPR to produce shorter teff grasses that are less likely to bend or break even in wind or heavy rain.

The Danforth Center’s Institute for International Crop Improvement, based in St. Louis, Missouri, will transfer the CRISPR-modified seeds to Ethiopia. There, they will be tested first in greenhouses and then in the field. The institute will also train Ethiopian scientists in CRISPR gene editing methodology.

There are a small but growing number of CRISPR projects on the African continent, said Dejene Girma, director of ag-biotech research at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. “Through time, things will be routine,” he said. “At every laboratory around the globe, people will be doing it.”

The Gates Foundation is providing a 4.9 million-dollar grant to support the teff gene editing project called Genome Editing in Teff for Uplifting Productivity, or GET-UP.

Vipula Shukla, senior program officer for agriculture at the Gates Foundation, said consumer demand for CRISPR-edited foods extends far beyond salad greens.

There’s a lot of demand and need for compelling traits that are both farmer-facing and consumer-facing in the developing world,” Shukla said in a session on CRISPR-edited foods at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in March that also featured Adams from Pairwise. “It’s something people need and want, and technology gives us a great tool to do it efficiently and effectively.”

The Gates Foundation is particularly interested in how gene editing can make crops more resistant to pests and diseases, tolerant of drought, heat, or salinity, or resilient to climate shocks.

Lessons learned from GMOs

CRISPR has helped fast-track not only improvements in plants but also their paths to market. Steven Runo, a molecular biologist at the Plant Transformation Lab at Kenyatta University in Kenya, is working to make sorghum, an ancient grain resistant to the parasitic weed Striga.

How can next-generation crops avoid the missteps that befell their predecessors? Runo initially used traditional GMO techniques, but now he’s using CRISPR to recreate mutations that occur naturally. “The CRISPR-edited sorghum is not treated as a GMO,” he said. “What that means is the route to release and commercialization is really, really short.”

As the use of CRISPR becomes more widespread in agriculture, scientists say it’s important to draw lessons from what went wrong with GMOs.

When GMOs first came onto the market, there was little public information about how they were made, Chavarriaga said. This led to fear and misinformation, which was a major barrier to their use in low- and middle-income countries. That includes highlighting how regular people, “not just big industry,” can benefit from these crop improvements.

Beyond gaining public acceptance for CRISPR-edited foods, other challenges remain. One is the regulatory hurdles. Earlier this year, the European parliament voted to ease regulation of gene-edited crops, a major victory for biotechnology in a region that has heavily regulated GMOs.

However, regulation differs widely across countries and regions. For example, the CRISPR-edited sorghum variety is not treated as a GMO in Kenya, but it is in neighboring Uganda.

Another hurdle is the lack of capacity for gene editing in many of the lower-income countries that could benefit from these technologies, which the Gates Foundation is trying to address by supporting programs like GET-UP.

Intellectual property claims and disputes related to CRISPR technology also exist. A number of companies are working to improve CRISPR gene-editing technologies as tools for crop improvement and patenting those tools.

However, some companies may release patents for specific crops and traits that could have broad societal benefits. For example, last week, the agricultural technology company Syngenta Group announced that it would provide rights to select genome editing and breeding technologies for academic research globally.

While CRISPR so far appears to be steering clear of many of the controversies GMOs have faced, it is one of a range of tools that will be needed for a food system that is strained by climate change.

Runo emphasized that traditional GMO techniques remain essential for reasons that range from fortifying foods with essential nutrients to making plants resistant to disease.

“We need both technologies,” he said. “There are things that CRISPR can do that GM technology cannot do, and there are also things that GM technology can do that CRISPR cannot.”


Catherine Cheney is the Senior Editor for Special Coverage at Devex. She leads the editorial vision of Devex’s news events and editorial coverage of key moments on the global development calendar.


This article was originally published by Devex