Change blooms down on farm

Next gen­er­a­tion of biotech food heads for stores

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Lau­ran Neer­gaard

WASH­ING­TON — The next gen­er­a­tion of biotech food is headed for the gro­cery aisles, and first up may be salad dress­ings or gra­nola bars made with soy­bean oil ge­net­i­cally tweaked to be good for your heart.

By early next year, the first foods from plants or an­i­mals that had their DNA “edited” are ex­pected to be­gin sell­ing. It’s a dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy from to­day’s con­tro­ver­sial “ge­net­i­cally modified” foods, more like faster breed­ing that prom­ises to boost nu­tri­tion, spur crop growth, and make farm an­i­mals hardier and fruits and veg­eta­bles last longer.

The U.S. Na­tional Academy of Sciences has de­clared gene edit­ing one of the break­throughs needed to im­prove food pro­duc­tion so the world can feed bil­lions more peo­ple amid a chang­ing cli­mate.

Yet gov­ern­ments are wrestling with how to reg­u­late this pow­er­ful new tool. And af­ter years of con­fu­sion and ran­cor, will shop­pers ac­cept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in dis­guise?

“If the con­sumer sees the ben­e­fit, I think they’ll em­brace the prod­ucts and worry less about the tech­nol­ogy,” said Dan Voy­tas, a Univer­sity of Min­nesota pro­fes­sor and chief sci­ence of­fi­cer for Ca­lyxt Inc., which edited soy­beans to make the oil heart-healthy.

Re­searchers are pur­su­ing more am­bi­tious changes: Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that’s low in gluten. Mush­rooms that don’t brown, and bet­ter-pro­duc­ing to­ma­toes. Drought-tol­er­ant corn, and rice that no Fred Gmit­ter, a ge­neti­cist at the Univer­sity of Florida Cit­rus Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, right, vis­its a grower in an orange grove hurt by cit­rus green­ing disease in Fort Meade, Fla. Gmit­ter hopes gene edit­ing will elim­i­nate the prob­lem.

longer ab­sorbs soil pol­lu­tion as it grows. Dairy cows that don’t need to un­dergo painful de-horn­ing, and pigs im­mune to a dan­ger­ous virus that can sweep through herds.

Sci­en­tists even hope gene edit­ing even­tu­ally could save species from be­ing wiped out by dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases like cit­rus green­ing, a so far un­stop­pable in­fec­tion that’s de­stroy­ing Florida’s famed oranges.

First they must find genes that could make a new gen­er­a­tion of trees im­mune.

“If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA se­quence ever so slightly by one or two let­ters, po­ten­tially we’d have a way to de­feat this disease,” said Fred Gmit­ter, a ge­neti­cist at the Univer­sity of Florida Cit­rus Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, as he ex­am­ined dis­eased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.

Ge­net­i­cally modified?

Farm­ers have long ge­net­i­cally

ma­nip­u­lated crops and an­i­mals by se­lec­tively breed­ing to get off­spring with cer­tain traits. It’s time­con­sum­ing and can bring trade-offs. Modern to­ma­toes, for ex­am­ple, are larger than their pea-sized wild an­ces­tor, but the gen­er­a­tions of cross-breed­ing made them more frag­ile and al­tered their nu­tri­ents.

GMOs, or ge­net­i­cally modified or­gan­isms, are plants or an­i­mals that were mixed with an­other species’ DNA to in­tro­duce a spe­cific trait — mean­ing they’re “trans­genic.” Best known are corn and soy­beans mixed with bac­te­rial genes for built-in re­sis­tance to pests or weed killers.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that GMOs are safe to eat, some peo­ple re­main wary and there is con­cern they could spur her­bi­cide-re­sis­tant weeds.

Now gene-edit­ing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, prom­ise to

al­ter foods more pre­cisely, and at less cost, with­out nec­es­sar­ily adding for­eign DNA. In­stead, they act like molec­u­lar scis­sors to al­ter the let­ters of an or­gan­ism’s own ge­netic al­pha­bet.

The tech­nol­ogy can in­sert new DNA, but most prod­ucts in de­vel­op­ment so far switch off a gene, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Mis­souri pro­fes­sor Ni­cholas Kalaitzan­don­akes.

Those new Ca­lyxt soy­beans? Voy­tas’ team in­ac­ti­vated two genes so the beans pro­duce oil with no heart-dam­ag­ing trans fat and that shares the famed health pro­file of olive oil with­out its dis­tinct taste.

The horn­less calves? Most dairy Hol­steins grow horns that are re­moved for the safety of farm­ers and other cows. Re­com­bi­net­ics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA in­struc­tions from nat­u­rally horn­less An­gus beef cat­tle.

Rules aren’t clear

The Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment says ex­tra rules aren’t needed for “plants that could oth­er­wise have been de­vel­oped through tra­di­tional breed­ing,” clear­ing the way for de­vel­op­ment of about two dozen gene-edited crops so far.

In con­trast, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2017 pro­posed tighter, drug­like re­stric­tions on ge­need­ited an­i­mals. It prom­ises guid­ance some­time next year on how it will pro­ceed.

Be­cause of trade, in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions are “the most im­por­tant fac­tor in whether genome edit­ing tech­nolo­gies are com­mer­cial­ized,” USDA’s Paul Spencer told a meet­ing of agri­cul­ture econ­o­mists.

Europe’s high­est court ruled last sum­mer that ex­ist­ing Euro­pean curbs on the sale of trans­genic GMOs should ap­ply to gene-edited foods, too.

But at the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion this month, the U.S. joined 12 na­tions in­clud­ing Australia, Canada, Ar­gentina and Brazil in urg­ing other coun­tries to adopt in­ter­na­tion­ally con­sis­tent, sci­ence-based rules for gene-edited agri­cul­ture.

Are these foods safe?

The big­gest con­cern is what are called off-tar­get ed­its, un­in­tended changes to DNA that could af­fect a crop’s nu­tri­tional value or an an­i­mal’s health, said Jen­nifer Kuzma of the Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing and So­ci­ety Cen­ter at North Carolina State Univer­sity.

Sci­en­tists are look­ing for any signs of prob­lems. Take the horn­less calves munch­ing in a UC-Davis field. One is fe­male and once it be­gins pro­duc­ing milk, Van Ee­nen­naam will test how sim­i­lar that milk’s fat and protein com­po­si­tion is to milk from un­al­tered cows.

“We’re kind of be­ing overly cau­tious,” she said, not­ing that if beef from nat­u­rally horn­less An­gus cat­tle is fine, milk from edited Hol­steins should be, too.

Avoid­ing a back­lash

Un­cer­tainty about reg­u­la­tory and con­sumer re­ac­tion is cre­at­ing some strange bed­fel­lows. An in­dus­try-backed group of food mak­ers and farm­ers asked univer­sity re­searchers and con­sumer ad­vo­cates to help craft guide­lines for “re­spon­si­ble use” of gene edit­ing in the food sup­ply.

“Clearly this coali­tion is in ex­is­tence be­cause of some of the bat­tle scars from the GMO de­bates, there’s no ques­tion about that,” said Greg Jaffe of the food-safety watch­dog Cen­ter for Sci­ence in the Pub­lic In­ter­est, who agreed to join the Cen­ter for Food In­tegrity’s guide­lines group.

“There’s clearly go­ing to be ques­tions raised about this tech­nol­ogy.”

FEDERICA NARANCIO/AP

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