It sounds like the tagline of an action-thriller: What could be born of a union between The World’s Most Evil Corporation, Monsanto Co. (MON), and The World’s Most Powerful Gene-Editing Tool, CRISPR/Cas9?
Well, what it won’t be is a genetically modified organism, or GMO, The World’s Most Notorious Acronym. That’s according to responses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a pair of “Regulated Article Letters of Inquiry” made public in April 2016.
Monsanto and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. (DD) are hoping CRISPR/Cas9 — which uses a naturally occurring enzyme to edit DNA — puts the period to a long-running agricultural controversy.
The USDA has chosen not to designate crops created by DuPont and Caribou Biosciences using their own CRISPR techniques as GMOs. CRISPR results in genetically optimized, rather than modified, organisms, because there’s no foreign DNA introduced to the original organism.
This is because the process does not involve transgenics — the act of removing genetic material from one species and placing it in another to give the destination organism a trait or traits not ordinarily found in that species.
Monsanto and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. are hoping CRISPR/Cas9 — which uses a naturally occurring enzyme to edit DNA — puts the period to a long-running agricultural controversy.
This alphabet soup will also eventually include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — also known as the EPA and the FDA.
Penn State researcher Yinong Yang recently used the CRISPR/Cas9 science to grow anti-browning mushrooms. Of the project, Yang explained that the “genome-edited mushroom has small deletions in a specific gene but contains no foreign DNA integration in its genome.”
Though this development initially renders it exempt from USDA regulatory review, the Administration did write in a letter to Yang: “Please be advised that your white button mushroom variety described in your letter may still be subject to other regulatory authorities such as FDA or EPA.”
So it’s too soon to say with absolute certainty that a CRISPR/Cas9 organism is not, from a regulatory perspective, “genetically modified.”
And there are plenty of folks out there ready to argue the case, in the U.S. and in Europe, where the war on GMOs originated.
For now, however, Monsanto — whose $66 billion merger with Bayer AG (BAYRY) has raised plenty of opposition from “food safety” advocates around the world — has inked a global licensing agreement for the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing technology in agriculture with MIT’s and Harvard’s Broad Institute.
As Monsanto explains in its September 22 press release announcing the partnership: “Genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas, offer a way for scientists to promote site-directed integration of specific genes as well as the opportunity to enhance beneficial or remove undesired plant characteristics. These techniques will enable plant breeders to deliver better hybrids and varieties more efficiently.”
Terms of the agreement strictly limit Monsanto’s use of the technique to seed development, an area where the agribusiness giant has generated a lot of consternation among Europeans and Americans fearful of “Frankenfoods.”
It’s too soon to say with absolute certainty that a CRISPR/Cas9 organism is not, from a regulatory perspective, “genetically modified.”
What CRISPR/Cas9 will help Monsanto do is, ultimately, develop even more crops that are drought resistant and create cooking oils with more desirable nutritional profiles.
It is critically important, however, that Monsanto is not permitted to use CRISPR/Cas9 for so-called gene drive, a technique that attempts to force a specific gene to be inherited by a species’ offspring. This kind of “cellular machinery” has its upsides. But there are enormous unknowns as well.
According to Issi Rozen, chief business officer of the Broad Institute, “Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture.
“We are encouraged to see these tools being used to help deliver responsible solutions to help farmers meet the demands of our growing population.”
The concern about out-of-control propagation — in addition to lack of understanding about how GMOs impact humans who consume crops generated from such seeds — is what drives anti-GMO activists around the world.
So will Monsanto be the force to “weaponize” CRISPR/Cas9?
That’s one of those ponderable imponderables — within the realm of “possibility” but still a low-probability outcome.
Rather, what we’re more likely to see is a greater concentrated effort to develop drought-resistant strains of key staple crops such as corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat.
Monsanto’s stated game is “yield.” And yield is all about producing an increasing supply of staple crops from a shrinking supply of arable farmland around the world.
So will Monsanto be the force to “weaponize” CRISPR/Cas9?
And climate change is only exacerbating that problem.
According to a recent study published by the journal Nature Communications:
Strong reductions in attainable yields of major cereal crops are found across a large fraction of current cropland by 2050. These areas are vulnerable to climate change and have greatly reduced opportunity for agricultural intensification. However, the total land area, including regions not currently used for crops, climatically suitable for high attainable yields of maize, wheat, and rice is similar by 2050 to the present day. Large shifts in land-use patterns and crop choice will likely be necessary to sustain production growth rates and keep pace with demand.
In this kind of context, with shrinking farmland and rising temperatures, it’s imperative that we find new ways to increase staple yields. One way to do that is by developing new strains of corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat.
Food security is a complex dilemma.
Are we talking GMO “Frankenfood” or genetically optimized staple crops?
At the same time, even as we’re finding better ways to do things, this whole campaign against GMOs has been dismissed as “full of fearmongering and fraud.”
Indeed, a Harvard geneticist recently told Business Insider that CRISPR/Cas9’s agricultural applications are “a beautiful thing.”
Man, after all, must eat. It may not be a thing of beauty, but it sure is a necessity.
This Week In…
Prudence, via Shane Parrish of Farnam Street:
Think of how many policies, procedures and systems of organization which forget this basic truth; systems of political control, price control, social control and behavioral control — from bad workplaces to bad governments — which have failed so miserably because they refused to account for the underlying motivations of the people in the system, and failed to do a second-step analysis of the consequences of their policies.
It’s just as true in personal relations: How often do we fail to treat others correctly because we haven’t taken their point of view, motivations, aspirations, and desires properly into account? How often is our own “system of relations” built on faulty assumptions that don’t actually work for us? (The old marriage advice “You can either be right, or be happy” is pure gold wisdom in this sense.)