Gene Editing to Feed the World

Genetic technology – feeding the 7.5 billion

As of this month, there are seven and a half billion people living on earth. One of the most pressing concerns for today’s governments is finding a way to feed so many mouths, both sustainably and cost effectively. The agricultural industry has benefited from technology like advanced robotics and data analysis, but is still viewed as a late adopter when it comes to innovation. Traditional food production is facing disruption as farmers and researchers alike experiment with new tech. One team at Tokushima University has made a ground-breaking contribution to FoodTech using CRISPR. The relatively new gene editing technique is already used to alter human DNA, create malaria resistance genes in mosquitoes, and even fuel research into reviving the woolly mammoth. The researchers at Tokushima University have applied CRISPR to crop production, and the result is seedless tomatoes. But why is this such a significant development, and how can gene editing be used to accelerate and improve produce?

Using CRISPR to feed the world
The scientific term for producing fruit without fertilisation is parthenocarpy. So far, the process has successfully created seedless cucumbers, bananas, grapes and oranges. So what’s so special about seedless tomatoes? Instead of a random, natural mutation, seedless tomatoes are the result of artificial editing – in other words, it’s controlled by humans. Teamed with intensive farming methods, CRISPR-enabled parthenocarpy could revolutionise crop production. Farmers would no longer have to rely on traditional techniques, meaning that crop could be grown on-demand without a reliance on unpredictable natural conditions. But is it realistic? Tokushima University’s Keishi Osakabe definitely seems to think so, stating that CRISPR could be used to develop various types of fruit. CRISPR isn’t all about removing seeds, though. By fundamentally changing the genetic material of crop, it could be used to remove certain allergens. This would be incredibly helpful for people with allergies and intolerances. It could also improve the shelf life of crops, too.

How will gene editing disrupt food production?
Editing the genes of crop could provide a potential solution to the on-going issue of food provision.  This will alleviate reliance on pollination, which is obviously a massive breakthrough for areas where insect pollination doesn’t happen. If the research carried out in Japan can be taken out of the lab and applied to real world crop production, it will positively disrupt food security. Areas which were previously limited to certain produce will experience greater variety, as well as the introduction of beneficial mutations like removing allergens, extending freshness, and so on. It’s also relatively cheap, which is a vital requirement for mass adoption – not to mention government support. However, there’s another side to consider. The natural world has an established order, and any change to the environment will have knock-on effects. For example, if we can artificially pollinate crops, what happens to the insects (namely bees) that exist to pollinate? Without bees, humanity would have a serious problem. Bees are responsible for one third of all pollination – take them away, and you lose a huge chunk of the global food supply. This makes seedless fruits counter-productive, to say the least. As well as this, the initial growth of genetically edited crops will be more labour intensive than traditional pollination, as farmers will have to use cuttings. The reaction of the public is also uncertain, and could lead to a fierce pro-organic movement that demonises GMO.

On the one hand, genetically modified crops could be key in finding an affordable and effective way to feed the global population. Fruit and other produce could become hypoallergenic, with a far longer shelf life and less reliance on environmental variants for growth. Theoretically, this will make it easier to provide higher crop yields which cater to a wider proportion of the population. Even so, the potential implications of widespread CRISPR-edited food are not all positive. Artificial parthenocarpy will need to be strictly monitored so that it interferes with nature as little as possible, complimenting instead of challenging the natural order. Despite setbacks, seedless fruit and other mutations enabled by CRISPR have massive potential. As CRISPR is a gene editing technique, seedless tomatoes are likely to fall under the category of GM crops. This means they’ll require extensive legislation before wider adoption can occur. With research still underway and regulations not yet in place, it might be a while before we’re picking up artificially grown salad.

Do the positives of seedless crops outweigh the negatives? Should seedless crops be subject to the same regulations as GM plants? Is artificial parthenocarpy counter-productive to global food supply? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.