'The first step towards a future with healthy, hardy plants' - but are they GMO?

CRISPR gene edited cabbage grown and cooked for the first time

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

UK organic certification board, the Soil Association, is firm: " Gene editing or splicing [techniques] are GM.”  © iStock/DragonImages
UK organic certification board, the Soil Association, is firm: " Gene editing or splicing [techniques] are GM.” © iStock/DragonImages

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Cabbages modified with CRISPR-Cas9 “genetic scissors” have been harvested and cooked for what is believed to be the first time, Umeå University says.

The cabbages were edited using CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 technology to remove a segment of their DNA.

The changes – a deletion in the coding region – were expected to alter growing patterns, Umeå University’s Professor Stefan Jansson told FoodNavigator.

CRISPR cabbage Credit: Stefan Jansson

Professor Jansson – who grew, harvested and cooked the cabbages – was unable to confirm whether intended changes occurred since the seeds were modified in a lab in a different country which wishes to remain anonymous.

However, after serving the cabbages to Gustaf Klarin, the host of a Radio Sweden gardening show, he said the project could be the first small step towards new opportunities in farming.

“Although the meal only fed two people, it was still the first step towards a future where science can better provide farmers and consumers across the world with healthy, beautiful and hardy plants,” ​the university said in a statement.

CRISPR technology’s potential applications include increasing food quality, for example by inactivating gene coding for unwanted proteins like glucosinolates in brassica vegetables or reducing allergens, Professor Jansson said.

EU legalities

Despite its touted potential, CRISPR technology is a grey area in the EU 2001 Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) legislation, according to UK organic certifier, the Soil Association.

Under the laws, very few GMOs can be commercially grown in the EU. However, because CRISPR cuts DNA segments out without introducing foreign DNA experts have debated whether resulting organisms are GMOs or not.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, argued that removing part of the DNA in a plant still makes it GMO.

He told FoodNavigator: “GM is defined under EU law as covering any modern breeding technique that directly modifies genomes. The international

Professor Stefan Jansson. Credit: Stefan Jansson

Cartagena Protocol uses similar language.  Gene editing or splicing are GM.”

Yet, Professor Jansson said that since the change enacted by CRISPR in the cabbages could also arguably occur spontaneously, and since no foreign DNA was introduced, the Swedish Board of Agriculture​ was convinced that plants could not be considered genetically modified in accordance to EU regulations.

“As the Swedish Board of Agriculture have interpreted the law in such a way that if we only make a deletion, and make sure that there is no ‘foreign DNA’ at all in the plant, it is simply not a GMO then I do not need to tell them in advance (of growing them) just like with any seed,”​ he told us.

“It would be rather odd to have two plants that are exactly the same but one is forbidden and the other is free to cultivate without limitations. That’s the only reasonable interpretation,”​ Professor Jansson noted in his blog.

The EU has avoided providing an answer on CRISPR tech, Umeå University said, though noted the American authorities agreed with Sweden. The Finnish authorities are also in agreeance, Professor Jansson said.

“This opens up for using the technology to develop plants of the future,”​ the university said.

Courting controversy

Outside of legality debates, the subject of GMO has been a source of controversy for many years​.

“Editing the genome of a plant always has the potential to disrupt the DNA,”​ Melchett told us.

“As with other genetic engineering, gene-editing can cause unintended changes in genetic material, with some techniques causing editing (cuts and alterations) in DNA in places in addition to the intended location.”​  

He cited Greenpeace’s policy briefing, which states: “The newly created organisms can still display unexpected and unpredictable effects, which can have implications for their food, feed or environmental safety.”

Professor Jansson countered that almost all genetic variation breeders use is a disruption of the DNA which could have unexpected effects, even through traditional non-CRISPR methods.

Melchett also stressed that any purported benefits of gene editing cannot outweigh the risk of uncertainty.

“Almost all claimed advantages are already being delivered by more modern, faster and less risky crop breeding technologies like Marker Assisted Selection,”​ he added.

Professor Jansson conceded that not all desired changes in crops could be much better addressed using CRISPR than through “traditional breeding"​.

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1 comment

I'll pass

Posted by Jennifer Christiano,

Regardless of how lawmakers parse the legal definition of a GMO, a GMO is like a piece of pornography: identifiable by the fact that you know it when you see it.

From the perspective of most people, it's a travesty that we're spending billions to produce small numbers of high-tech, "silver bullet" crops, when we are currently losing thousands of varieties that have sustained peoples living in every conceivable human habitat since our species first began walking upright. Oh, but I forget, the bigwigs and shareholders at Monsanto/Bayer need an unending stream of &100 bills to light their cigars with. Can't make that sort of profit on varieties that already exist. Sometimes I forget what the plebes are supposed to consider important.

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