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Could CRISPR save us from a future of food scarcity?

Scientists are hopeful that the gene-editing technology could help ease food insecurity as climate change continues to threaten crop yields and worsen global food insecurity on a planet with a growing human population.

Feeding a population of more than 8 billion people in a world stricken by an unpredictable climate will be a challenge we are forced to face in the near future.

Looking for solutions to this incoming problem, scientists are turning to CRISPR – a genetic code that stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats – which is found in the molecules of living organisms.

These are specialised gaps in DNA that allow living organisms to store the genetic code of viruses they’ve encountered. Next time the virus tries to attack, it is recognised and obliterated by the organism’s defences.

In short, the plant, animal, or human will have gained immunity.

The discovery of CRISPR has allowed scientists to successfully mimic this process in the lab, by inserting the genetic makeup of a variety of diseases into humans susceptible to illness. It is also now being explored as an avenue for treating mental illness.

Considering this success, we have to ask: can CRISPR be applied to improve our food systems?

The short answer is that it already has.

In 2021, a Tokyo-based startup called Sanatech Seed used CRISPR to grow tomatoes that contain high levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

This acid is a neurotransmitter that is recognised as capable of relieving anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It is also capable of lowering blood pressure and improving overall cognition. These tomatoes first hit the market in 2021.

Health benefits aside, CRISPR could come in handy to help essential crops become more resilient in the face of extreme heat, bitter cold, high salt environments, and potentially even bacteria, fungi, and insects.

Considering that farmers already lose 20-40 percent of their crop yields to pests, which costs them $200 million per year, they can’t afford to surpass this amount.

Especially not when 920 million people already live with food insecurity at a severe level – around 11 percent of the human population.

An answer to our unstable planet

CRISPR-strengthened foods could become a major lifeline for humanity (and all its farmers), as climate scientists have warned that crop-destroying fungi, bacteria, and insects will become far more difficult to avoid in a hotter world.

Combine these issues with a growing number of climate refugees, never-ending urbanisation, the loss of arable land, and overuse of pesticides and fertilisers – we’ve got a clusterfuck of issues to deal with.

Luckily, we’ve already got a bit of a leg up.

Those working in agriculture have identified various positive traits in certain crops, thanks to selective breeding. This has enabled farmers to fend off larger losses by favouring plants that produce bacterial proteins capable of killing or repelling pests.

Because many viruses need plant proteins to grow, multiply, and spread, it is possible that researchers can utilise CRISPR to eliminate or alter plant proteins a particular virus likes to take advantage of.

This would allow the plant to resist being hijacked by a foreign organism.

How does CRISPR differ from GMO crops?

Food scientists have warned against comparing CRISPR-edited crops to genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Unlike GMO crops, which are injected with a whole set of new DNA that leads to resistance to pests, tolerance to chemical weed killers, increased yield, or longer shelf-life, CRISPR would not require adding foreign genes into the crop.

Instead, it would eliminate or correct already existing traits that lead to mutations or susceptibility to unforgiving environments, viruses, bacteria, and pests – which experts say ‘works like natural breeding, just much faster.’

Despite how common GMO foods are in Western society –cornstarch, corn syrup, soybean oil, and canola oil – many people steer clear of them over health and safety concerns.

Still, the emergence of any new technology is always accompanied by scepticism. And as CRISPR is put forward as a saving grace for food scarcity of the future, there are a few fair worries emerging in the field.

UN: 258 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2022 | Arab News

These include whether editing out ‘undesirable’ traits and weaknesses in crops will disrupt their natural evolution – possibly changing the entire species. They also worry whether new diseases or mutations could be created by removing certain traits.

Other concerns are focused on the unpredictable. They cite the potential unintended consequences that may arise from CRISPR’s use, including its possible ripple effect on entire ecosystems.

Finally, there are ethical questions to consider when editing the genes of living beings simply so that we can ensure they’ll end up on our plates, especially when it comes to livestock.

If crops optimised by CRISPR become the norm, the technology’s use in cultivating desirable traits in farm animals like cows, pigs, and chickens without depending on selective breeding methods may come to the forefront of the conversation.

In the end, the discovery of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats has changed the way we look at disease and illness in the modern world. Its future as a solution to an industry threatened by climate change will be one to look out for.