What is gene editing exactly?
Gene editing is exactly what it sounds like – rearranging and changing genetic code.
Every living thing is comprised of genes that house DNA, and these can be altered in small or big ways. So far we know that this process has the potential to create more reliable crop yields, allow foods to resist certain diseases, and help us produce more foods that cater to allergies like gluten and dairy products.
Cuts are made to specific DNA sequences within organisms, affecting their appearance, taste, and behaviors in certain conditions.
One recent, widely used method of gene editing is called CRISPR-Cas9, which matches sequence patterns much faster than older technologies. Check out the video below for a more comprehensive explanation.
Gene editing is not to be confused with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which is the merging of DNA from one species to another. Gene editing is simply altering the patterns already existing within an organism, speeding up a process that would otherwise occur naturally at a slower rate.
What are the benefits?
There are a few obvious, big benefits to altering our food production using gene editing.
First off, yields could be increased significantly and use less land to produce more food. For example, we’ve already created vines that produce twice as many tomatoes, meaning an almost 200% increase in crops using the same amount of space. Potatoes have also been created that bruise less easily.
Our food can also be designed to withstand extreme weather, which will become more common as climate change accelerates. Creating crops that can survive extended droughts and floods is a huge focus for researchers and will be vital if we want to continue feeding our dense population in the coming decades.
Crops will be able to resist disease and pests in the future too, allowing us to reduce the amount of pesticide used around the world. Animals could be edited in a similar way, reducing the risk of disease outbreak among cattle and lowering our dependency on antibiotics.
More efficient farming could reduce costs of agriculture and, in turn, create lower prices for groceries. We could see developing nations edit yields to be more self-efficient without a reliance on multinational firms, opening up the global food market and creating a more balanced system.
What are the pitfalls or cons?
Not everything is hunky dory, however, and there are some drawbacks to consider before we all start trying to cut up the genetic codes in our backyard tomato patch.
A big concern is unintended consequences and knock on effects of altering the DNA of our crops. We don’t know for sure that other animals and species won’t be affected by anything we change, and that farmers won’t start to overstuff their warehouses with cattle as a result of increased efficiency.
Plus, other places along a genome besides the targeted area can be accidentally altered, which could create surprising alterations that were not meant or planned.
Scientists reckon they can manage this through careful regulation and even compare the situation to selective animal breeding. There has been no real rules around mixing genetic codes of animals, and the effects have been minimal.
There’s also the question of ethics. Many worry that the potential to edit and change human DNA could lead to ‘designer babies’, whereby disabilities are removed and only a parent’s ideal body characteristics are created. It becomes a question of ‘playing God’, and some worry that scientists could cause significant human suffering in the case of an accident or unintentional disaster.
Still, nearly all of these issues can be monitored and with thorough regulations they shouldn’t cause too much of a problem when handled by attentive and responsible scientists.
We’ll need to utilize these innovations if we’re to tackle the impending struggles of climate change anyhow, so it’s best to iron out the kinks before it becomes a common and widespread practice.
Onward and upward, one genetic sequence at a time.