After GMO resistance, gene-editing technology is the next new thing

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Capital News Service
LANSING — A lack of science in public decision making, punctuated by a misunderstanding and dislike of GMOs, are hurdles the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development face, Director Jamie Clover Adams said.
Public pushes against GMOs and for animal welfare improvements such as “cage-free” eggs hurt food producers financially because the efforts needed to adjust to public opinion cost more than people are willing to pay for the final product, Clover Adams said.
“There is not one lick of science out there that’s peer reviewed that says that genetically modified organisms are not safe,” Clover Adams said. “They’ve been out there for 25 years, there is not one lick of science, but that doesn’t seem to matter to people…
“People now are so far removed from food production, they don’t think about what it takes to get that to the plate.”
With new technologies on the horizon, the jury is out as to how the public will assess them.
One such technology us “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” better known as CRISPR. It’s a gene-editing technology that shows high promise for developments in animal welfare and improving crops, Clover Adams said.
CRISPR allows researchers to selectively remove, replace or “turn off” specific genes, which might be used in the future to correct mutations that lead to certain diseases, according to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a biomedical and genomic research center.
The technology has potential applications in agricultural development.
Clover Adams said, “CRISPR, I think, is going to have a huge and significant impact. II can’t put a number on it, but it will have more of an impact than genetic modification.”
Kate Thiel, a field crops and advisory team specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said Michigan’s agriculture industry is excited and cautiously optimistic about CRISPR and its potential applications, particularly in disease resistance, drought tolerance and nutritional value.
“Ag is looking at this as a way to help us continue to feed that growing population, to do so in a safe, healthy and effective manner and to provide nutritious food sources for folks,” Thiel said. “This is a more timely and more precise, more simple and more effective model than what we’ve been able to use to date.”
Holsteins, the most popular dairy cow breed, are naturally horned. For safety and other reasons, food producers have the cows’ horns removed, which can be a painful process for grown cows.
CRISPR technology might allow for a humane fix to this practice.
“I’ve done that, and it’s not fun, and doing that to an animal is not the nicest thing to do,” Clover Adams said. “They can use that CRISPR technology and they can edit (the cow) so that they don’t have horns.”
Thiel said that CRISPR differs from the “long, intensive process” of genetic modification by allowing researchers to target solely a desired trait, and make changes using only DNA from the same organism.
“One of the arguments from a genetic modification standpoint that folks have had concern with is the fact that you’re using DNA from another species in order to rectify the problem within a certain species,” Thiel said. “This allows for modification within the same species.”
However, as  with GMOs, some people oppose CRISPR technology, though Clover Adams said it can make processes like this better for both the animal and the vet.
Everyone has a right to question and to want to learn more, Thiel said, and as the application of CRISPR becomes more widespread, the industry needs to be transparent and ensure the public is informed about how it will benefit them.
As with CRISPR, Clover Adams said the department will watch the move towards technologies such as lab-produced meat with interest.
While she isn’t certain the public will accept the new tech, if they do, it bodes well for the adoption of other new technologies in food production, she said.
“I’ve always been amazed that, as human beings, we accept our smartphones and what the doctor does to our body, but we won’t accept that same technology in food production,” Clover Adams said.
CRISPR technology is relatively new and Thiel said she couldn’t estimate when the first CRISPR-modified product might hit shelves.However, she said she’s cautiously optimistic and excited for the tech to be in their toolbox.
“There are really issues that are plaguing our members and our ability to produce food here in the state of Michigan, inside the United States and outside, in regards to disease pressures, insect issues and whatnot,” Thiel said.
“If this is an opportunity to help us continue to provide a safe, nutritious, healthy food supply, then we want to continue to allow for innovation and see where this leads us,” she said.

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