White button mushrooms. For some people, they’re a cooking staple. For others, they’re not even on the shopping list.

But no matter where they fall in a consumer’s bank of preferences, these popular mushrooms are in the forefront of what some are hailing as the “latest breakthrough” in crop breeding: gene editing, often referred to as CRISPR.

As small as they may be, these little mushrooms represent an important agricultural milestone because they were the first gene-edited crop to get a regulatory green light from the U.S. government. Thanks to that decision in 2015, the mushrooms can be grown and then sold in the marketplace without having to go through USDA’s regulatory process. 

Lori Harrison of the American Mushroom Institute explained that CRISPR technology is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to disable a gene or add a desirable trait by modifying a gene in a specific place in a genome.  

The white buttons dominate the mushroom market because they are widely used in soups, casseroles and salads. However, their short shelf life is considered to be one of the major factors hampering the market. And that’s where gene editing comes into the picture.

Underneath all of the complex science involved in this lies a simple commercial goal: to keep the mushrooms from browning — an extremely important consideration for consumers, not to mention the mushroom growers. 

But even though researchers have been able to use gene editing on the mushrooms, no gene-edited mushrooms are yet available in the marketplace, said Harrison.

But that doesn’t mean other gene-edited crops aren’t in the wings.

Soy beans, here they come
This year, gene-edited soy beans were planted on 17,000 acres in three U.S. states. For agriculture, it marks a biotech milestone. That’s because oil from the crushed soybeans will be available in the marketplace early next year, either as edible oil (think salad dressings, for example) or in products like granola bars.

Advocates of this innovative technology say that it goes back to you, the consumer. The oil from the soybeans will contain fewer saturated fatty acids and significantly more of the healthier oleic acid than ordinary soybeans. Better yet, under high temperature such as when frying, fewer trans fatty acids, which are considered hazardous to human health, are formed. 

In other words, all of this will add up to fewer heart-threatening fats, thanks to a “healthier” fatty acid profile. 

The farmers will also benefit because they’ll likely get more money for their crop — in the case of soy beans this year anywhere from 40 to 90 cents more a bushel when compared to standard futures prices.

Time is another consideration. Products developed using gene editing can be brought to market within 3 years — at least in countries that don’t classify them as GMO products — which costs from $10 million to $20 million. In contrast, to bring a GMO product to market could cost $100 million over a decade.

Is this the same as GMOs?
No,  gene editing is not the same as genetically modifying an organism (GMOs), which involves inserting foreign genes into an organism’s DNA to achieve desired results. Instead, gene editing relies on “fine-tuning” genes that are already in a plant. In some cases, that translates into switching genes off and on.

Put simply, in the case of gene editing, enzymes are used like scissors to tweak a plant’s genetic operating system, either to stop it from producing undesirable components such as polyunsaturated fats or to boost levels of desirable components such as beta-carotene, a precursor for Vitamin A, that are already in the plant.

Precision is the name of the game. Researchers say it allows them to precisely insert or delete genes in a plant’s DNA, thus improving a crop. 

No wonder then that gene editing has earned a reputation for being “the next big thing” in plant science. Some go so far as to say it’s science’s “hottest new tool.”

Harrison of the American Mushroom Institute said that researchers are exploring its ability to improve yield, disease resistance, shelf life, nutrition and other crop attributes.

On the human level, CRISPR genome editing allows scientists to quickly create cell and animal models, which researchers can use to accelerate research into diseases such as cancer and mental illness.

Not surprisingly, the recent news that a Chinese scientist has claimed to have edited the genes of the embryos of twin girls so they won’t contract HIV has provoked controversy. Gene editing such as this — the world’s first such case of genetically edited humans — is banned in most countries, including China. Meanwhile his work has not yet been verified.

Go here (https://www.broadinstitute.org/what-broad/areas-focus/project-spotlight/questions-and-answers-about-crispr) for more information about CRISPR.

How did this happen?
Just more than five years ago, scientists at Calyxt, a fledgling U.S. bioscience company succeeded in triggering targeted mutations at two sites in the soybean genome. That allowed the company to develop healthier soybeans. Incredibly, it all started with just one soybean cell.

Meanwhile, Swiss-based Syngenta AG would like to bring its first gene-edited products to market by early next crop. With that in mind, it is using gene editing on crops such as tomatoes, rice and sunflowers. In California, Arcadia Biosciences inc. is also using gene-editing to develop consumer friendly foods. Scientists point to other crops that can be improved through gene editing, among them corn, rice, cotton, canola, wheat, sunflowers, and fruit and vegetable crops.

What about regulations?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t plan to regulate new plant varieties developed using gene editing because no foreign DNA is being inserted into the plants, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on March 3, 2018,  

In his statement about this, Perdue described gene-editing as an “innovative” technique that’s “indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.”

Along the same lines, he also said that innovations such as genetic editing are “increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.”

He pointed out that “the newest of these methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.”

“With this approach,” he said in his statement, “the USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present 

Innovation and promise for the future of agriculture figure into this. 

“Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens,” Perdue said. “Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources.”

The United States is not alone in this approach. In mid-November, Perdue announced that the United States had joined with 12 other nations to support policies that enable agricultural innovation, among them genome editing. 

Those countries are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, the Dominican Repubic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, Uruguay and Vietnam. The 13 nations urged other nations to adopt “consistent and reliable” rules for gene edited crops.

Not so fast
Not unexpectedly, some opposition has arisen to calls for an “easy pass” on oversight and regulations. 

This past summer, Europe’s highest court handed down a ruling that said gene-edited crops should be regulated the same way as genetically modified plants — a definite blow to crops intended for export markets. 

And a 2018 report, “Gene-edited organisms in agriculture: Risks and unexpected consequences,” put out by the Friends of the Earth has its share of concerns and warnings. The report points out that because gene editing involves “cutting” the DNA, followed by the cut DNA being repaired by the cell’s own repair mechanism, “these techniques result in GMOs.”

“Any artificial manipulation that invades living cells for the purpose of altering its genome in a direct way, including gene editing, constitutes genetic engineering,” according to the Friends of the Earth report.

Then there are the warnings in the report: 

“Increasingly, scientific publications are revealing the genetic errors that gene-editing can create,” said co-author Dr. Janet Cotter of Logos Environment.

“New genetic engineering techniques like gene editing are risky and may result in surprise consequences for people and the planet,” said co-author Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth. “These new GMOs must be properly assessed for health and environmental impacts before they enter the market and our food system.”

According to the report, researchers found large deletions and rearrangements of DNA near the target site that were not intended by researchers. In addition, two independent studies published in Nature Medicine, found that cells genetically engineered with CRISPR “have the potential to seed tumors or may initiate tumorigenic mutations.” 

Another concern cited in the report is that CRISPR can have unintended effects on DNA and gene regulation and “could create serious problems like potentially interacting with a cancer prevention gene in human cells.”

The environment also comes into the picture, with the report warning that the application of techniques like CRISPR “will further entrench a chemical-intensive approach to agriculture,” as is the case with many GMO crops that rely on pesticides such as glyphosate to control weeds.

The report’s recommendations include a call to have all engineering techniques fall within the scope of government oversight of genetic engineering and GMOS.” In addition, “all genetic engineering should be labeled and traceable.”

As for labeling, in the case of the gene-edited soybeans, an official with Calyxt said food companies using the soybean oil will be able to make health claims such as “zero trans fats” on packaging, and even “non-GMO.” 

Michael Hansen

What about food safety?
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the Consumers Union, says “you don’t know what those mutations or rearrangements might do in a plant.” That’s why he wants the plants tested for safety before they’re marketed.

“Tinkering with plant genes could lead to unplanned deletions or complex genetic rearrangements that can cause ‘unintended consequences’ with the food chain,” he said. 

Pointing out that while he’s not opposed to gene editing, he said that so far “we don’t know if there are any food safety issues.”

“Maybe it (gene editing) makes plants more susceptible to disease. Maybe it increases the level of toxins in the plants. You don’t know until you look for it. That’s why this needs to be investigated and go through a pre-market food-safety assessment. And why labeling is important. Consumers need to be able to make decisions based on information.”

The Friends of the Earth’s report takes this one step further: “While it is critical for more scientific studies to be conducted about the specific impacts of the unintended consequences of gene editing on agricultural systems, ecological systems, human and animal health, the discussion regarding the use of gene editing in agriculture also needs to go further than a science-based risk assessment to encompass wide public discussion about the future of agriculture.”

The future?
“Gene editing is one of many tools agriculture can use to produce the healthy, affordable food consumers expect using fewer natural resources,” said Charlie Arnot of The Center for Food Integrity. “It can allow breeders to make genetic improvements more quickly and precisely than other breeding methods.  Being able to make improvements more quickly and precisely to produce the food we need with less environmental impact is an important social benefit.”

Arnot also says that according to the World Wildlife Fund, food production has more impact on the environment than any other human activity.  

“Gene editing has tremendous potential to help farmers grow the food we need using less land, water, chemicals and other resources,” said Arnot. 

“We’re just driving to the ball park, said John Dombrosky, CEO of Ag Tech Accelerator, in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Gene editing will be free to do tremendous things across the ag continuum, and the promise is just gigantic. We’ll be able to fine-tune food for amazing health and nutrition benefits.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)