A few weeks ago, Stefan Jansson, a Swedish plant biologist, sat down to a plate of pasta with cabbage harvested from his garden. This cabbage was like none any human had eaten before; its DNA had been edited via a much-hyped new gene-editing technique called CRISPR. Jansson’s meal was the first time anyone anywhere had professed to eating CRISPR-modified food—an entirely new category of GMOs.
But far from being some bizarre “frankenfood,” the cabbage looked almost exactly the same as unedited cabbage. Scientists had deleted only a single gene, which made it grow a little slower.
What might be confusing though is that Jansson’s cabbage, Brassica oleracea, did not look like or taste like cabbage—and it had not looked liked or tasted like cabbage even before scientists took CRISPR to its DNA. “It tastes like broccoli,” says Jansson, “and the leaves look like broccoli’s.” And that’s because humans have been breeding the species B. oleracea for centuries, and this single species now comprises dozens of varieties more commonly known as kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, collard greens, savoy cabbage, etc. They all descend from wild cabbage, and they technically all belong to one species. The exact variety Jansson grew is not farmed, so he called it “cabbage” out of convenience.
Against this awesome diversity of cabbages, the deletion of one gene in Jansson’s cabbage seems almost puny in comparison. Yet CRISPR has been hyped as a world-changing innovation because it allows scientists to easily edit the genomes of nearly any species in the world: plant, animal, or even human. And CRISPR could be an opportunity to reintroduce genetic engineering to the world—to get beyond poisoned names like “GMO” and Monsanto.” To make products that exciting and novel and cooler. Way cooler than slower growing cabbage anyway.
In the early days of genetic engineering, big-ag companies focused on traits that could help farmers, either by reducing pesticides or by making weedkillers easier to use. This makes sense as farmers are the direct consumers of ag-company products, but it didn’t make a difference to you buying vegetables in the supermarket. “What’s missing in the first round of food biotechnology are traits focused on the consumer,” says Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company that engineers yeast to make flavors and fragrances. And so GMO corn and soybean slipped without much excitement into the food system.
With CRISPR, scientists can now genetically engineer foods with much more ease. “I think you’ll start to see more consumer facing traits because you’ll see more traits worked into plants, period,” says Kelly. CRISPR could make all sorts of fruits and vegetables more nutritious and delicious—things you might actually notice and look for. Maybe even create awesome new varieties that become as trendy as kale.
That’s the best-case scenario for public excitement about CRISPR food anyways, though the early test cases are not looking so revolutionary. The constraint, for now, is how poorly scientists understand of the genetics of most plants.
So there’s DuPont Pioneer, the first big-ag company to license CRISPR technology, which has announced its first CRISPR-edited crop will be waxy corn, expected within five years. You probably have never eaten waxy corn, at least not in recognizable corn form anyway. The variety produces a lot of starch, which is used to thicken food as well as for making textiles, glues, and paper.
Again, this makes business sense for DuPont Pioneer. It already breeds waxy corn by eliminating a specific gene through traditional breeding, and CRISPR makes it a lot easier. “We know the gene well, we know the variants of waxy well,” says Neal Gutterson, DuPont Pioneer’s vice president of R&D, on why the company chose waxy corn as its first CRISPR product. For you and me though, the benefits of CRISPR-edited waxy corn are pretty much invisible.
On the other hand, Yinong Yang, a biologist at Penn State, is using CRISPR to create a mushroom that doesn’t turn brown at the slightest touch. The project was actually the suggestion of David Carroll, president of Giorgio Fresh Mushrooms, a big mushroom grower. Yang successfully knocked out a browning gene using CRISPR, and that mushroom ended up being the test case for the United States Department of Agriculture’s policy on regulating CRISPR-edited crops. (The USDA decided these crops, where genes are deleted and no foreign DNA is added, do not fall under its regulation.)
That brought a lot of media attention, and Giorgio got skittish. “They didn’t want to have the perception from customers that their company was developing genetically modified organisms,” says Yang. Yang is still working to perfect the anti-browning in his academic lab, but he has no immediate plans to commercialize it.
The anti-browning trait might also just be a tough sell to customers: When a Canadian apple wanted to sell a GM apple that doesn’t brown—genetically altered through conventional means—it had to battle assumptions that growers just wanted to hide bruised produce. Which is, well, true. Produce that doesn’t brown when handled does also mean less waste for stores and growers.
In Sweden, Jansson is no stranger to unease over genetic engineering. His colleagues recently returned from a conference where activists flung cow dung and eggs at scientists. The CRISPR-edited cabbage he grew he actually got from researchers outside Sweden, who did not want their names or even their country revealed, fearing backlash from environmental activists. Jansson did his cabbage stunt because he wanted people to start thinking about what CRISPR could mean for food.
After the first meal, which inspired headlines around the world, Jansson sat down to a second plate of pasta and cabbage with a television reporter. This time, he used a little more cabbage in the dish. He was originally hesitant because wild cabbage contains loads of glucosinolates, molecules that give mustard and horseradish their pungency but also repel insects. Too much of it can make humans sick, and his cabbage was, remember, not originally bred for cultivation.
His stomach didn’t feel great after, Jansson confessed— “as if I had spicy food at an Indian restaurant.” But CRISPR, he suggested, could help with that. Scientists could use the technique to hunt down glucosinolate genes, keeping the ones that add flavor and deleting the ones that upset stomachs. And why stop there? You might imagine wasabi that can grow outside Japan (you’ve likely never had real wasabi) or Brussels sprouts that graciously refrain from smelling like farts. And that’s just the cabbage family.