Utopian vision and CRISPR DNA editing

Inherent problems with CRISPR technology, health risks of novel foods, and the spectre of bioweapons are ignored in favour of non-existent super crops and livestock animals. Report: Claire Robinson

An article in the Guardian hypes "CRISPR gene editing" as a technology that will "change the way Americans eat".
While paying lip service to concerns about gene editing, the article largely swallows the GMO lobby sales pitch wholesale. It leads with a series of "jam tomorrow" promises for gene editing that recall the way the first generation of GM crops were hyped for many years as silver bullet solutions, and with speculative claims of potential GM "miracles" winning vast amounts of column inches.
Author Karen Weintraub writes, "Soybeans will be bred to yield oil without dangerous trans fats. Lettuce will be grown to handle warmer, drier fields. Wheat to contain less gluten. And pigs bred to resist deadly viruses. Someday, maybe even strawberry plants whose delicate berries can be picked by machine instead of by hand."
But despite this Utopian vision, the only one of these GMOs that actually exists is Calyxt's soybean engineered to produce an oil without unhealthy trans fats. And the soybean has not been safety tested in animal feeding trials, so we don't know if it's really healthier or if it's toxic or allergenic.
(Before defenders of GMOs write to us claiming that there's no protein in oil and thus no allergenic potential, we've been assured by insiders in the soybean industry as well as GMO food testing firms that most soybean oil does contain detectable protein – enough to cause allergic reactions in soy-allergic people.)
Although several fields are particularly prone to bubbles, hype, and exaggeration – the medical and financial fields immediately spring to mind – a surprising number of otherwise serious journalists can become entranced by techno-fix solutions that don’t exist and are completely untested. And no technology sector seems more prone to this than biotech.
Weintraub uncritically quotes an agbiotech entrepreneur as claiming that CRISPR could "really solve the entire [agricultural] industry’s problems". She also quotes the former Monsanto scientist and GMO lobbyist Alison Van Eenennaam, who bangs her usual de-regulatory drum, saying that if strong government regulations are imposed, gene editing will be finished before it really begins. Van Eenennaam's biotech industry PR links and her patent ownership are not mentioned in the article.

Stringent EU regulation?

Weintraub's article is subtitled, "The technology will be labeled and subject to stringent health and environment review in the EU, but not in the US, where produce could be radically changed". However, while the EU Court of Justice has ruled that gene-edited crops and foods are GMOs and must be regulated and labelled as such, pro-GMO lobbyists are working hard to change EU regulation so that these products are exempted from safety checks and labelling or subjected only to "light-touch" regulation.
So unless the public rapidly catches on to what's happening and alerts their elected representatives, the technology could escape "stringent health and environment review", even in Europe.

"Settled" science?

Perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Weintraub's article is her claim that in the field of gene editing, "The scientific challenges have been largely settled – or at least there’s a clear path toward resolving them, according to scientists in the field."
In reality, scarcely a week goes by without yet another scientific article coming out about pesky unintended off-target effects from CRISPR and other gene editing tools. Some of these effects are recognised as life-threatening. Just how Weintraub has missed these headline-grabbing articles is a mystery.

Rewriting nature

Food crops are not the only organisms that are being targeted for "editing" by GMO companies. All living organisms are squarely within their sights – algae, bacteria, fish, livestock animals, and insects. So gene editing doesn't only stand to change "the way Americans eat", but the nature – and ownership – of life itself.
The object, as pointed out in the Guardian article by Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety, is patents. While GMO companies tell the public and regulators that gene edited organisms are no different from what may occur in nature (a line that Weintraub swallows unquestioningly), they tell patent offices that these organisms are unique inventions that could not occur in nature, and thus merit a patent. Both claims cannot be true, and GMWatch readers at least will have no trouble working out which is dodgy PR.

The myth of precision

With the first generation of GM crops journalists were told how incredibly precise genetic engineering was. Now journalists like Weintraub are being seduced by the supposed precision of CRISPR, which is often contrasted with old school genetic engineering! But while the initial cut in the DNA made by the CRISPR editing tool can be precisely targeted, the effects of that cut cannot be predicted or controlled. The editing process causes many unintended effects, not only at “off-target” sites, but also at the intended gene-edited site.

Many of these unintended effects occur after the gene-editing tool has finished its task, when the editing process is at the mercy of the cell’s DNA repair machinery, over which genetic engineers have little or no control.
Why does this matter? The worry with genetically manipulating food crop genomes is always that the composition of the crop plant can be changed in unexpected ways, meaning that they could produce new toxins or allergens, or have harmful impacts on wildlife.

This concern has proven well founded with the first generation of GM crops, some of which were found to have toxic and/or allergenic effects in animal feeding trials. In most cases these studies were carried out many years ago but we still don’t know if the effects were caused by the GMO or the pesticides it was grown with. That's a measure of how determined the GMO industry has been to kill, discourage, and attack inconvenient research into the risks of its products.

Would similar effects be seen from gene-edited plants? We don't know, because no animal feeding studies with “new GMOs” have been published. But before any gluten-sensitive person swallows gene-edited low gluten bread – should any such product ever appear – they would be well advised to demand the data from long-term animal and human feeding trials to show it's safe to eat.

Precision doesn't mean safety

Weintraub also makes the mistake of confusing "precision" (of the initial CRISPR cut) with safety, when in fact they have nothing to do with one another, since no one understands what the knock-on effects of even the most "precise" cut will be on the organism. I could "precisely" cut and paste text within a document written in Chinese yet (because I don't understand the language, any more than genetic engineers understand DNA) still create the most confused mess.
In this regard, perhaps the most insightful aspect of the Weintraub's article is the series title: "Toxic America". This Guardian series is slated to cover topics "from weedkillers in your breakfast cereal to microplastics in your salt". It's a fitting home for articles on untested and risky gene-edited foods.

Intelligence Community: Not fooled

There's one sector of the US government that is not fooled by the GMO industry sales pitch. While naive journalists regurgitate industry messages about the supposed naturalness of gene editing, the technology is seen as such a threat to US national security that it has made it into the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. This organisation correctly sees that it is possible to use CRISPR to engineer diseases that wipe out crops or people.
So gene editing is either the safest and most natural thing on the planet or a threat to life on earth as we know it, depending on who you listen to. It's time the Guardian's journalists started paying attention to a broader range of voices than GMO lobbyists and agbiotech entrepreneurs.