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Is the future of produce all in the genes?

Gene-editing tool Crispr could be responsible for more of what's in consumers' crisper drawers.

5 min read


Is the future of produce all in the genes?


Colorful fresh fruits and vegetables are often seen as nature’s bounty, but researchers are increasingly finding ways to give Mother Nature a hand with gene-editing techniques designed to create hardier versions of familiar plant foods.

The farmers growing fruits and vegetables for human consumption have always faced challenges from pests, plant diseases, storms, droughts and extremes of heat and cold, and climate change threatens to make those conditions worse. 

Additionally, food waste because of spoilage can take another big bite out of a food supply that will need to feed a growing global population in the coming years, and environmental concerns have researchers exploring ways to develop crops that need less water and fewer chemical inputs. 

Indoor vertical farming practices can be a solution to dealing with the vagaries of Mother Nature and addressing the need for more sustainable growing practices, and exploring gene-editing methods to create hardier crops with longer shelf lives is another. 

Researchers have long used conventional methods to breed desired traits into plants, but the evolution of DNA science has greatly expanded the possibilities. Scientists around the world are working on genetically tweaking fruit and vegetable varieties to create versions that are better able to withstand weather extremes and fend off pests and disease. Using a gene editing tool called Crispr-Cas9, scientists can cut and replace exact sequences of plant DNA to make the desired changes.

In an article in the journal Horticulture Research published earlier this year, researchers explore using genetic modification as a way to lessen both produce loss, which happens when fruits and vegetables spoil or are otherwise damaged, and produce waste which refers to fruits and vegetables that are tossed because they’re too ugly or imperfect to sell in traditional retail channels.

Ugly produce has become a bit more popular with services like Misfits Market and Imperfect Produce that rescue the food and ship it to subscribers in regularly scheduled boxes, but supermarket produce sections are still largely filled with perfect looking specimens. 

Gene-editing researchers have also been developing methods of boosting the nutritional value and beneficial fatty acid profiles of plants, as well as creating crops that require fewer pesticides and herbicides. They’re also working on methods of gene editing designed to save crops threatened by diseases like citrus greening and fusarium wilt, a fungus that’s proving deadly to the ubiquitous Cavendish banana.  

Regulators in the US and many parts of the world aren’t as concerned about genetically edited crops as they are about genetically modified foods, which are made by inserting DNA from another plant species, but regulators in Europe have taken a more stringent approach. That could be changing.

In a report issued last month, the European Commission announced the start of a process to create a legal framework for allowing genetically modified and gene-edited crops as a part of a solution for boosting sustainable food production. EU scientists made the case in a paper published last month in the journal Trends in Plant Science that gene editing and other biotech interventions are necessary for reaching sustainability goals set forth in the European Green Deal. The authors argue for a change in EU law to allow gene-editing and other novel breeding techniques in organic agriculture. 

Regulations in the US are less stringent than in the EU, and most crops developed using gene-editing tools are viewed the same as conventional crops for regulatory purposes, according to the Global Gene Editing Regulation Tracker. Agriculture groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation have embraced the technology as a vital tool for helping farmers grow food more sustainably, according to a statement on its website.

A range of crops developed using gene-editing technology are in various stages of development and some have begun hitting the market in recent years.

In 2019, Calyxt introduced the first gene-edited food product to market. The product, an oil made from soybeans that were edited to contain less saturated fat and no trans-fat. The same year, Australia-based research firm Nexgen Plants began trials of gene-edited tomatoes. 

Okanagan Specialty Fruits used a technique called RNA interference to develop varieties of the Arctic apple, which is resistant to bruising and browning. Packaged sliced Arctic apples debuted in select US markets via Amazon Fresh this month. 

And researchers at universities and in the private sector are working on a slew of other possibilities, from very small tomatoes that could be grown in small spaces like the International Space Station and non-browning versions of potatoes and mushrooms. 

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