Is This Tomato Engineered? Inside the Coming Battle Over Gene-Edited Food
April 15, 2018
Zachary Lippman, a plant biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, stood among 2 acres of his experimental crops, including some altered with a gene-editing technology called Crispr-Cas9, one of the most ambitious efforts yet to improve on what nature created.
He plucked a tomato, held it up and asked: “Will people eat it?”
That question is rippling through the food industry, where a battle for public opinion is under way even before the new gene-edited foods hit the market.
Proponents including scientists and agriculture-industry executives say gene editing in plants could transform agriculture and help feed a growing global population. Organic farmers and natural-food companies say it may pose risks to human health and permanently alter the environment by spreading beyond farms.
The agricultural industry is desperate to avoid a repeat of the acrimonious and costly battles it fought over the genetically modified crops currently on the market, even though authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization have deemed them safe. Seed companies and farm groups have spent millions of dollars on campaigns promoting the benefits of biotech crops, while fighting labeling requirements and proposals to block their cultivation.
Although biotech crops have become ubiquitous on U.S. farms, covering more than 90% of corn and soybean acres, consumer mistrust of genetically modified organisms, called GMOs, has grown. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center showed 39% of U.S. adults believe foods made from GMO crops are less healthy than conventional versions.
Sales of products made without GMOs have increased to $25.5 billion in 2017, from $349 million in 2010, according to the Non-GMO Project , a Washington state-based group that promotes and certifies foods made without genetically engineered crops. It calls the new gene-edited crops “GMO 2.0.”
Agriculture-industry officials say new methods such as Crispr, Talen and Zinc-finger nucleases are fundamentally different than the biotechnology techniques pioneered in the 1980s by companies such as Monsanto Co. Those older techniques generally involve adding in genes from outside species, including bacteria, viruses and other plants. Inserting such genes enables crops to survive herbicide sprays or repel destructive bugs.
The new gene-editing technologies enable scientists to achieve some of the same effects by altering the plants’ own DNA, without inserting new genes. With Crispr-Cas9, the most widely used system, scientists can program genetic guides to target a location along the plant’s DNA, where the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA. The cells change the DNA sequence as the cut is repaired. Scientists are using Crispr to make drought-resistant corn, reduced-gluten wheat and tomatoes with easy-to-remove stems.
The agricultural industry is working to persuade the public to distinguish between the newer gene-edited crops and traditional GMOs. It describes the editing technologies as an extension of plant breeding, the centuries-old practice of crossing plant strains to create improved offspring. Gene editing, the industry says, can yield the same results as crossbreeding, only faster.
“What we’re doing is basically boosting Mother Nature to a degree, just in a more efficient manner,” says Adrian Percy, head of agricultural research for German drug and chemical maker Bayer AG , which also develops crop seeds.
That distinction is critical for the agriculture industry. Regulators, including the USDA, don’t plan to regulate gene-edited plants as tightly as those engineered with outside DNA. That means Crispr-edited corn, for example, can be brought to market faster and more cheaply than traditional biotech crops, which on average can take 13 years and $136 million to develop and launch, according to agriculture consulting firm Phillips McDougall Ltd.
As gene-edited foods move closer to supermarket shelves, shoppers’ decisions will help determine the new technology’s reach. One of the world’s largest seed suppliers, DowDuPont Inc., plans this fall to sell a variety of Crispr-edited corn to U.S. farmers that can be processed into salad dressings and other products. Calyxt Inc., a Minnesota-based startup, this spring is marketing soybeans that have been gene-edited to produce healthier vegetable oil. Other top seed companies, including Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta AG, aren’t far behind.
“Ultimately, the consumers have the final say about what technology is used in the public market,” says Neal Gutterson, chief technology officer of DowDuPont’s agricultural division.
DowDuPont hired consulting firm Resolve Inc. to bring together executives, plant scientists, organic farmers and others in 2015 and 2016 for roundtable discussions that included gene editing. Swiss seed company Syngenta is pitching gene editing’s sustainability benefits to environmental groups. Bayer set up an “Ambassador Program” to coach crop scientists and other employees for public speaking and talking to consumers.
Monsanto scientists are diving into food debates on social media. Last August, company scientist Larry Gilbertson wrote a LinkedIn post about Crispr’s potential to delete individual genes to improve plants: “Knocking out genes may sound like a bad thing to do, but nature does it all the time.”
A 12-page document prepared for agriculture groups by the International Seed Federation, a Switzerland-based trade group, details how crop scientists and other industry participants should approach public discussions of gene-editing technologies. It recommends referring to “plant breeding methods,” not “techniques or technologies.” “Focus on the benefits of the products, rather than the applications or methods,” the document says. The phrasing was informed by focus-group research, says the group’s communications manager, Jennifer Clowes.
Jessie Alt breeds soybean varieties for DowDuPont in Dallas Center, Iowa. When picking up her daughter from dance class three years ago, she found herself explaining to other parents what a farmer was doing with a soil-probe device in a nearby corn field. She began regularly fielding questions about pesticides and organic agriculture, and when her company offered a program to train “research ambassadors” to explain modern agricultural practices to consumers, she signed up.
Last year in March, she appeared at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center to give a presentation to tourists called “The Magic of Seed.” Peppering descriptions of plant genetics with words like “fun” and “exciting,” she and Eric Hoeft, a molecular geneticist for the vegetable seed company HM.Claus Inc., talked about their own gardens and “tools” used to “develop” new plant varieties, similar to phrasing recommended by the industry. They didn’t discuss specific technologies.
Some tourists saw no problem with genetically engineered crops, Ms. Alt recalls, while others didn’t understand why they were necessary. “The folks in the middle are easier to have a conversation with and change their perspective,” she says.
Professor Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, says she understands why companies want to stay away from the GMO label, but says referring to the new gene-editing techniques as breeding “seems a little disingenuous.”
“It is a biotech-improved crop,” she says. “Something along those lines would be more honest and is more likely not to come back and bite them in the future if consumers find out it is not really just breeding, it’s something more.”
That message is at the center of campaigns being rolled out by some natural-food makers and organic-food groups. The Non-GMO Project already has barred gene-edited plants and animals from bearing its “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, now on about 50,000 products in the U.S. and Canada. “Telling people it’s the same as traditional breeding is not truthful, and according to our nonprofit mission, we are determined to counter some of that,” says Megan Westgate, the group’s executive director.
Her group is meeting with food retailers and plans to hold focus groups to determine how to best convey to consumers its message that gene editing is an extension of existing GMO technologies.
Some organic-food makers have taken steps to keep gene-edited crops out of their products. Nutiva Inc., a Richmond, Calif., company that produces organic coconut oils and hazelnut spreads, uses no canola oil. That ensures Nutiva won’t use GMO canola oil or gene-edited varieties being developed by San Diego-based startup Cibus Global Ltd., according to Nutiva founder John Roulac.
Cibus Chief Executive Peter Beetham says his company hopes to get organic groups and food companies more comfortable with the technology by explaining how it develops seeds and how they can help farmers and consumers.
Nutiva’s Mr. Roulac helped set up a website called GMOinside.org to campaign against genetically engineered crops. The website describes gene editing as “genetic engineering 2.0” and warns that “if left unchecked it will sneak its way onto every grocery store shelf.”
Opponents of Crispr gene editing argue that even if resulting crops contain no foreign DNA, they are still unnatural. They say that is because the Cas9 protein that cuts the DNA comes from bacteria.
Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley , and one of the inventors of the Crispr-Cas9 tool, calls that a “bogus argument.” Dr. Doudna, who cofounded a company that licensed Crispr-Cas9 technology to DowDuPont, says the plants people consume today are already highly engineered—by traditional breeders who introduce changes to plant DNA randomly by repeatedly crossbreeding them. Why is one considered natural and the other not? she asks.
Some supporters of gene editing believe the industry needs to ditch old arguments that don’t resonate with consumers, such as the contention that the new technologies are needed to feed a growing global population.
Julie Borlaug is the head of public relations for startup Inari Agriculture Inc. and the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug, who pioneered new wheat varieties and large-scale farming methods that revolutionized food production in Mexico and India in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Borlaug’s advances have been credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Ms. Borlaug believes the gene-editing technology her company is pursuing can further her grandfather’s efforts to reduce global hunger, but she doesn’t think that argument will persuade skeptical U.S. consumers. “The consumer’s looking for a new and different way of agriculture, and it’s hard for the big [companies] to do a 180,” she says.
Cold Spring Harbor’s Dr. Lippman, based in Long Island, N.Y., is growing different kinds of Crispr tomatoes in the fields near his lab. By tweaking the tomato’s DNA, he can increase the number of fruits per plant or make them bigger. His expertise has brought scientific advisory work for companies, including Inari, and speaking gigs before scientists, schoolchildren and the general public.
At home, his tomatoes have sparked dinner-table questions from both his daughter, a high-school freshman studying biology, and his wife, Shira Lippman, who says she understands the importance of addressing global food challenges but wonders about the long-term effects.
Dr. Lippman sometimes offers to bring home a few research tomatoes, but his family still hasn’t tried a Crispr variety. “My wife won’t let me,” he says.