The Power of a Seed: GMOs and CRISPR
I’ve been farming for nearly half a century, so you could say things look a little different today than they did when I was planting my first crop of corn and soybeans in Central Illinois. Like many other professions, technological advances in farming have changed a lot of aspects of my job. With a boss like Mother Nature, I’ve endured a variety of challenges over the years, so I am grateful to have these technological advances as a tool to help me succeed in growing food, feed and fuel for our world.
One of those new tools is a seed – small enough to fit on the tip of my finger, but made with technology that can impact far more than just my farm.
GMO vs. CRISPR
The genetic modification and gene editing processes use modern technology to speed up the development of plants to meet our 21st century consumer needs and desires while maintaining the highest level of food safety.
You may have heard of CRISPR; full name CRISPR-Cas9. While this technology modifies a plant, it doesn’t necessarily result in a genetically modified organism (GMO). This technology is being heavily discussed and likely will appear on grocery store shelves in the near future.
An article written in the American Council on Science and Health describes a genetically modified plant as one where genes from other plants are inserted into a plant to cause desired genetic improvement. This technology has been used in crops such as soybeans, corn and rice to improve yield, reduce the need for pesticides, and in the case of rice, to improve the nutrient (vitamin) value.
CRISPR, on the other hand, does not introduce foreign genes into a plant but modifies the plants own gene structure by, in simple terms, turning genes on or off in order to achieve desirable traits (an allergen-free peanut, for example).
Is it safe?
Any plant that has been genetically modified goes through rigorous testing by at least one and often three U.S. agencies: USDA, FDA and EPA. In many cases, they are reviewed by as many as 1,000 scientists to ensure the outcomes include “safe to consume” and do not have negative environmental impacts. In short, it has been determined that genetically modified plants are no different from a food safety standpoint than plants that have been traditionally bred. In fact, one could make the case genetically modified crops are safer due to the scientific oversight that is required before they can be grown.
Why modify plants at all?
From my perspective, farmers may choose to grow modified plants for a number of reasons:
- Improve yield
- Drought resistance, so desert areas can produce food where it is extremely difficult today
- Consumer demand for a specific trait such as improved taste or better quality
I have grown some genetically modified crops for nearly 30 years and have seen my production of corn and soybeans dramatically improve. We have better yields and fewer weed problems since we first used GMOs in the late 90s. We are able to reduce pesticide use, which increases safety for the farmer, reduces the chance of a negative environmental impact on beneficial insects and microorganisms, and potentially brings a safer product to the end consumer.
Gene edited foods have the potential to bring more than just on-farm benefits, though. CRISPR technology is relatively new, so while its potential is still untapped, there are a number of benefits it could bring directly to the consumer. Potential improvements may include:
- Foods like peanuts with allergen genes “turned off”
- Reduced-gluten wheat
- Improved vitamin levels or other nutritional improvements
- Flavor-enhanced food
We all eat, and we all want nutritious foods, especially for our children and grandchildren. Our food system in the U.S. is the safest system on the planet, and farmers like me are continuing to learn and improve how we grow it with the help of technologies like CRISPR.
If you have questions about CRISPR foods or would like to learn more about this technology, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.
Dan Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL in partnership with his two brothers and his son. With a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Illinois State University, he has received many accolades and awards in the agribusiness community, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.