For thousands of years, humans have been selecting the best plants to breed, producing commodities that have more desirable attributes and are more useful to humans. Seeds from plants that performed well one year would be saved and used for the next. As the world developed, trade over long distances, food safety, and high appearance standards became increasingly important. Rising to the challenge, scientists found new ways to select for beneficial attributes in a commodity through the use of biotechnology.
Genetic engineering is one such biotechnology innovation that modifies the genetic material of a living organism like a plant or animal.(1) It plays a large part in creating sustainability and profitability in the industry. These modifications can make food more resistant to pests, disease, and drought, decreasing the need for crop protective inputs while increasing yields and farmer incomes. Alterations can also make food more nutritious and visually appealing so it doesn’t go to waste if overlooked at the grocery store. By creating more efficient crops, genetic engineering can even help reduce food prices, as we’re able to produce more with fewer input costs.(2)
The first genetically engineered food to appear on shelves was the Flavr Savr tomato. It was approved for sale in 1994 and was engineered to have a longer shelf life, suppressing the gene that causes tomatoes to soften after ripening.(3) Since then, genetic engineering has created new crops and even saved crops that were disappearing to disease.
In the 1990s, genetic engineering saved Hawaii’s papaya industry when a scientist by the name of Dr. Dennis Gonsalves created a strain of papaya resistant to the ringspot virus that was devastating the region. The first round of genetically engineered seeds were given to farmers free of cost.(4) In Canada, approximately 11.2 million hectares of genetically engineered crops were grown in 2019. This included canola, soybeans, corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa.(5)
Genetically engineered animals have also started appearing on the market in recent years. In 2015, AquaBounty Technologies was approved to sell their AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon.(6) The salmon was designed to grow more quickly, borrowing a gene from the fast-maturing Chinook salmon.
Engineering animals can also have environmental benefits. For example, Science Advances published a study that identified gut microbes directly linked to methane production in cattle. If this gene is manipulated, it could lower methane emissions by as much as 50 per cent.(7) Less methane production from cattle can help curb climate change and make cattle ranching more sustainable.
The most recent innovation in genetic engineering is the CRISPR-Cas9 tool. Unlike other gene editing techniques (like recombinant DNA) that brought us genetically modified organisms (GMOs) like the Favr Savr tomato, CRISPR-Cas9 is more precise and efficient. It is also faster and cost effective.(8) Instead of introducing foreign DNA, it edits existing DNA. If you think of a cell like a little computer, instead of rewiring your computer every time it needs an update, CRISPR-Cas9 allows you to just reprogram the software.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a mechanism in a bacteria cell that acts like an immune system, detecting and destroying viral DNA. When a harmful virus invades a cell, it injects its DNA in the hopes of becoming a part of the host cell’s genetic material. This can either kill the cell or spread the virus when the cell replicates. CRISPR’s job is to discover the virus, destroy it, and store the DNA information of the threat, so the cell is prepared the next time the virus appears. The process is very similar to receiving a vaccine. The protein Cas9 uses a copy of this remembered information (RNA) to search the rest of the cell for any more signs of the virus. If it finds a match, Cas9 then cuts the virus out of the cell’s DNA, allowing the cell to naturally repair the break by either gluing the two broken ends together, or rewriting genetic material to fill the gap.
This CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism has been harnessed by scientists and used to edit other organisms. They program CRISPR-Cas9 to search out specific parts in plant or animal DNA and either cut out that section of genetic code (ACGT) to turn off the gene or cut and replace it with a new combination of genetic code.(9) The CRISPR-Cas9 tool has been used to create fungus-resistant wheat, drought-resistant corn, and larger tomatoes, producing higher yields.(1) Food waste is lessened by developing damage-resistant apples, potatoes, and mushrooms that are more likely to survive the shipping process. This protects our climate from the harmful greenhouse gases food waste emits when it breaks down in a landfill. The nutritional value of food has also been enhanced by increasing omega-3 and vitamin A levels in produce.(10)
Did You Know?
Scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their research on CRISPR technology.(11)
In the US they have used CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically engineer pigs against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), a disease that causes pigs to miscarry, and when at its worst causes losses of $600 million to the industry.(10) By using CRISPR-Cas9 to cut out the receptors where the virus attaches itself, scientists have made the piglets immune. As a result, pig welfare is greatly improved and farmers save money they would have had to spend on diagnosis and treatment. The hope is to approve the genetically engineered pigs for sale in the US and China by 2025,(10) and in the future reduce the likelihood that pigs will transfer viruses to humans, like in the case of the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.
While genetic engineering is still a fairly new process, twenty years of research has shown no difference between genetically engineered food and conventional food when it comes to safe consumption. In fact, over 1,700 studies, including the World Health Organization and hundreds of independent studies, came to the consensus that genetically engineered foods are safe to eat.(2)
Despite this fact, humans do not consume most genetically engineered crops. The majority of corn and soybeans produced go towards feeding livestock. Genetically engineered crops also have other functions outside of food. Worldwide, 80 per cent of all cotton is genetically engineered and can be used to make our clothing. Likewise, soybeans can be used to create biodegradable replacements for plastic. Along with corn, soybeans can also be used in biofuels, contributing to renewable transportation. Genetic engineering even improves the welfare of animals within the medical field. Where it used to take twenty-three thousand pigs to make 1 lb. of insulin, scientists can now make insulin in the lab—no pigs required.(2) In total, the CRISPR-Cas9 market is expected to reach $5.3 billion by 2025.(12)
Did You Know?
One bale of cotton can make 215 pairs of jeans.(2)
For more information on agriculture technology explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
1 Parliament of Canada—Research Publications, 2019
2 GMO Answers—Welcome to GMO Answers
3 Biotechnology and Society—Flavr Savr Tomato, 2015
4 ThoughtCo—Genetically Modified Food, 2020
5 USDA—Canada: Agricultural Biotechnology Annual, 2020
6 AquaBounty—About Us, 2021
8 SAIFood—Gene Editing and Plant Breeding in Canada, 2020
9 TED—How CRISPR Lets Us Edit Our DNA, 2015
10 MIT Technology Review—The Food Issue, 2021