First CRISPR-edited salad hits the U.S. market
Scientists weigh in on the future of gene-edited foods
Food start-up Pairwise made history in May with the launch of its Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, the first genome-edited product using CRISPR technology sold in the United States. A mix of purple and green mustard greens, the new salad blend was gene-edited to taste less bitter and more like lettuce.
Food applications of the CRISPR technology appear endless. Development of virus-resistant cacao could protect the global chocolate supply. Allergen-free peanut butter could bring the childhood favorite back into school lunches. But experts temper their excitement about CRISPR-edited foods and Pairwise’s new product with concerns about adequate regulation and public perception.
CRISPR allows scientists to edit DNA within cells. The enzyme Cas9 acts like a pair of molecular scissors and cuts through DNA strands at a targeted location in the genome. Scientists can then manipulate the cell’s DNA repair machinery to introduce changes to genes.
Mustard greens boast a higher nutritional content, particularly in vitamins C and K, than more popular greens such as romaine and iceberg lettuce. Chemical compounds called glucosinolates give mustard greens their intense bitter flavor.
Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genetics professor at the University of California, Davis, tried the salad blend at an exclusive tasting and liked it, saying it tasted like “what you would expect a non-bitter bitter green to taste like.” While she’s thrilled to see CRISPR technology commercially applied to food, she fears some groups will scare consumers into avoiding these new options, as happened with genetically modified organisms. While many scientists say that GMOs are safe to eat and benefit the environment, some people remain skeptical. Organizations such as Greenpeace have claimed GMOs are harmful to the environment and unsafe to eat. “Whether [CRISPR] technology can withstand that kind of campaign, we’ve yet to see,” said Van Eenennaam.
Rodolphe Barrangou, who runs North Carolina State University’s CRISPR lab and is editor-in-chief of The CRISPR Journal, pointed out that CRISPR-edited foods have been around in the United States. for years. Barrangou pioneered the use of CRISPR to immunize yogurt starter cultures against viral infections when at Danisco in the early 2000s. While Barrangou helped prove the immune function of CRISPR, he and his colleagues did not use the technology to manipulate yogurt’s genetic information. Pairwise’s mustard greens blend is the first U.S. product with its genetic code modified using CRISPR.
“Seeing genome editing [in agriculture] is momentous, is exciting, is critical, is necessary, and it’s the start of a new chapter,” said Barrangou.
Pairwise published information on the CRISPR edits in the journal Plants in 2022. Sarah Evanega, Pairwise’s director of stakeholder communication, told WORLD in an email that the company is committed to transparency and will voluntarily label its foods as CRISPR-edited.
Jaydee Hanson, the policy director for Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, said his biggest concern about CRISPR-edited food is the possibility of “chromothripsis,” a phenomenon in which several hundred genetic changes occur simultaneously, which can result in disease in the plant.
A recent study at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory reported chromothripsis-like effects in CRISPR-edited tomatoes. Hanson noted that while chromothripsis is rare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration should require companies to prove its absence.
Biotechnology regulation is a complicated interplay between the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency. CRISPR-edited crops face less regulatory requirements than GMO products since the gene edits aren’t introducing foreign DNA. The USDA and EPA only regulate plants created using biotechnology if they introduce a plant pest. The USDA determined that Pairwise’s mustard greens were not a plant pest in 2020. The FDA recommends a voluntary consultation for gene-edited foods, which Pairwise went through, according to Wired.
Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, doesn’t suspect any safety issues with Pairwise’s mustard greens, but she echoed Hanson’s call for more transparency. She’d like to see regulatory and safety documents made publicly available for CRISPR-edited foods. Kuzma believes this helps build consumer trust over how the food is produced.
“I think it’s really important to make it clear and to be transparent about the kinds of gene edits that are made, or the kinds of genetic engineering that’s being done,” she said.
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report since its initial posting.