Plant geneticist Zach Lippman is growing cherry tomatoes in his greenhouse at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York, reported Ira Basen of CBC, a broadcasting company in Canada. What made Lippman’s story stand out is that his tomatoes are different from the ones grown in most people’s gardens and greenhouses.
Lippman’s tomatoes have shorter stems and more tightly clustered fruits, making them look similar to grapes. He said they now have the capability to fine-tune at will, thanks to gene editing. Lippman used CRISPR to introduce changes to three of the plant’s genes to make them suitable for large-scale urban agriculture. CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that edits DNA quickly and precisely. This way, researchers can target and cut any genetic material.
For instance, farmers who don’t want their mushrooms to turn brown after a few days can remove the gene that causes it. Introducing gene-edited products into the Canadian food system is exciting, but it’s going to be met with trepidation.
Canada’s GM Crops
In 2017, Canada was one of the global leaders in adopting biotech/genetically modified crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAA), explained Sean Pratt of The Western Producer, an agricultural news platform. Canadian farmers planted 32.4 million acres of GM crops in 2017, up from 4.9 million acres in 2016. Canada’s year-over-year increase was second only to the United States’ 5.2 million-acre surge.
Of all countries that planted a minimum of one million acres of GM crops, Canada showed an 18% increase followed by Bolivia at 7%. GM canola was Canada’s top biotech crop with 21.8 million acres as plantations increased by 15%. It was followed by GM soybeans at 6.2 million acres (20%) and GM corn with 4.4 million acres (19%).
Canadians’ Perception of GMOs/Gene-Edited Products
The food industry successfully tapped into genetic engineering in the 1990s. However, such practice is still an “ongoing public relations nightmare” considering that many Canadians are wary of products critics have called “Frankenfoods.”
A 2018 survey of consumer attitudes about genetic engineering plant-based and animal-based food products found that of 1,049 respondents, 56.3% of Canadians believed that GM food is thoroughly tested before it reaches consumers, while 16% disagreed, according to data from Dalhousie University, as mentioned by Hollie Shaw of Financial Post, a Canadian business news channel.
However, Canadians were also divided on the safety of genetically modified plants, animals, and food products. Among respondents, 37.7% believed that it is not safe for consumption and 27.6% did not express any opinion about its safety. Additionally, 35% of respondents said they purchased a plant-based GM food in the past, 19.4% said they had not, and 52.2% said they were unsure if they purchased one or not.
Regarding genetically modified animals, more than half of the respondents (55.5%) were uncertain about their safety. Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management at Dalhousie University and lead author of the study, said 90% of all crops grown in Canada are genetically modified and about 75% to 80% of the food available for sale have at least one GM ingredient.
The survey also found that 70.1% of respondents reported that they strongly agreed to have GMO food and ingredients labeled in Canada. Also, 18.5% agreed to have these products labeled, 8.4% neither agreed nor disagreed, 1.4% somewhat disagreed, and 1.4% strongly disagreed, cited Bedford. Charlebois emphasized, “I’m not against biotechnology, I’m against not being transparent toward the consumer.”
CRISPR vs. GMO: Is There a Difference Between These Techniques?
Gene-edited food products will be different from GMOs. Foreign genes are often incorporated into an existing genome when foods are genetically modified. To illustrate, if someone wants a vegetable to grow better in cold weather, they could extract a gene from a fish that lives in icy water, earning GMO products the label “Frankenfoods.”
With CRISPR and other gene-editing tools, genes can be removed or “turned off,” but no new genes will be added to the genome. However, the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Lucy Sharratt, was not convinced there’s a difference between CRISPR and GMO. She argued, “The new techniques of gene editing are clearly techniques of genetic engineering. They are all invasive methods of changing a genome directly at the molecular level."
While it’s possible to produce organisms with new traits, that doesn’t mean an individual knows what they have done to the organism, which can have unintended effects. In Canada, GMOs require extensive regulatory before going to market while gene-edited foods are not subjected to a risk assessment by regulators.
But co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University Jennifer Kuzma believed that gene-edited products should be tracked and monitored “for those low-level health effects that some products might be contributing to." Sharratt also questioned that gene editing will provide the benefits its supporters claim such as reduced pesticide use and improved drought resistance.
Kuzma noted that GMO researchers are sometimes guilty of overstating the promises of technology and understating potential risks. However, she believed that experts involved in developing gene-editing techniques do not want to avoid repeating past mistakes.
“They do realize that the first generation of genetic engineering did not go so well from a public confidence perspective," Kuzma added. Hence, they now have a desire to be more transparent with regard to communicating and sharing information.
No Labels Yet
The GMO sector has opposed mandatory labeling as a way to boost public confidence. A total of 64 countries are mandated to label their GMO products, but Canada is not one of them. So far, Canada doesn’t have any plan for labeling its GMO products. The executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, Jonathan Latham, perceived it as a mistake. He asserted that it’s to provide more information to consumers if they were to make informed decisions. Denying people information about their food’s content is a violation of a basic democratic right—the right to information.
For Latham, consumer skepticism increases if genetically engineered products are not labeled. Sharratt would like to see Canada follow the European Court of Justice’s approach in regulating genetically engineered foods, in which such products undergo the same testing as GMOs before they are sent to grocery stores. However, Lippman doesn’t think it will happen because the public will demand more access to genetically engineered products due to its great potential.
He asserted, “People will start to be educated and see that there's nothing harmful about it. It's completely fine. And then the only issue sticking out there will be whether we're over-promising. That'll be it."
Genetically engineered food products could revolutionize Canada’s food industry since genetic engineering techniques can modify or remove unwanted genes from an organism. However, experts and growers should educate consumers about gene-edited foods to gain their trust and boost public confidence.