Hacking Agriculture: CRISPR Could Change Food Forever

By Spencer Kellogg | @Spencer_Kellogg

“Freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs.” – Nelson Mandela

Food is Freedom

The single greatest priority of any sound and legitimate government is to provide, first and foremost, a reliable market for food. Throughout history, many gluttonous empires have fallen by the wayside due to an unexpected drought or crop failures. As nations around the globe deal with the persistent threat of climate change and the hyperinflation of civil populations, a country’s ability to feed its people is a never-ending problem.

But what if we never had to worry about food again? What if we could utilize the advancements of our powerful technological age to create new strands of genetically engineered crops that were plentiful, nutritious, cheap and sustainable?

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Technological Advancement

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaces Short Palindrome Repeats. The gene editing tool makes it easier for scientists to edit DNA strands that are cancerous or malignant. It has been developed over the past 30 years and is best known for its experimental use in biohacking disease in animals and humans. The tool has already produced revolutionary breakthroughs in the treatment of genetic diseases and in the future, it could change agriculture forever.

How Does it Work?

CRISPR serves as a sort of molecular scissors that can cut out and replace precise DNA strands in animals and crops. While early studies have focused on rodents, a recent paper released in Science details how CRISPR was successfully used to treat muscular dystrophy in four beagles at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Research into the tool’s capability to edit molecular crop structures has also proven fruitful.

A paper recently released by Dupont Pioneer has shown that CRISPR gene cutting can help transform a stalk of corn with poor agronomics into a strong performing crop within one, single crop generation. Before, it would take upwards of seven generations to transform the plant into a healthy producer. Pioneer has said the tool “represents tremendous promise” and plans to utilize CRISPR in the release of its next generation of waxy corn.

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When Wei Weng used CRISPR to edit strands of wheat in the Spring, the experiment “resulted in an increase in thousand grain weight, grain area, grain width, and grain length.” Touted as “Super CRISPR Wheat,” the report was published after researchers at Purdue and the Chinese Academy of Sciences used CRISPR to create rice that produces 25-31 percent more grain per yield. Jian-Kang Zhu, a professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue suggested the yield was: “virtually impossible to create through traditional breeding methods.”


Governments often group the two means together when it comes to oversight. However, CRISPR and GMOs are completely different in terms of both technique and ethics. Genetically modified organisms cut and paste genes from animals or bacteria into plants, hoping to endow the plant with a specific trait. CRISPR, on the other hand, introduces new traits into a plant by simply rewriting its genetic code.

In Florida, orange production has fallen by 75% since an outbreak of greening disease was found in the citrus crop almost a decade ago. Plant geneticists using CRISPR have been hailed for their breakthrough models on the citrus tree which should accelerate the development of trees that are resistant to greening disease. Instead of waiting for several generations of oranges, scientists are hoping to solve the disease outbreak as soon as genetically possible.

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Although the American public is still mostly in the dark regarding CRISPR, the sentiment is likely to change as the tool proves its worth. What’s more, CRISPR is definitively different from GMOs in both its scientific capabilities and ethical philosophy. While the corporate labs of Monsanto birthed GMOs, academies of science created CRISPR. The new technology also has no patent. This allows its creators to generally pursue good instead of corporate profits. It’s also just a heck of a lot cheaper than GMOs.

Regulation in Sight

Many government agencies, both home and abroad, have differing views about the new technology. Much of the dispute falls under how much they should regulate the editing. In Europe, the testing standards are expected to be meticulous with many demanding the EU require CRISPR meet the same label and regulatory requirements as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Environmental activists and agricultural researchers alike have hotly debated whether CRISPR should fall into the same classification as GMOs. Nick Talbot, a geneticist in the United Kingdom told Science Mag that “to classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.”

The United States government, on the other hand, has all but greenlit the innovative technology. In a March press release from The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue was upbeat in his suggestion that “plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens.”

Whether these rewired crops will produce new allergies or bear a significant risk to the consumer is at the heart of the regulation debate.

The Future of Food

The biotech firm Calyxt have been gene editing a ‘healthier’ soybean oil that they hope will be on grocery store shelves by next year. Scientists at the firm successfully used CRISPR like technologies to turn off genes structures that created trans fats in the oil, earning high praise from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

With such promise and potential that could revolutionize the agricultural industry, gene editing tools will likely usher in an entirely new paradigm of food production. Some analysts are predicting a day when farmers will be able to edit ‘personalized seeds’ to the particular climate and soil specifics of a piece of land. If used to the benefit of humanity, editing tools like CRISPR could help to create a more bountiful planet that should sustain the needs of a surging global civilization.

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