There are roughly 800 million people throughout the world suffering from malnutrition and food shortages. As the global population expands, concerns about the food supply grow. Over the last few decades, science has made tremendous progress to create more productive ways of food production. This not only includes enhanced agricultural crops but likewise better livestock techniques that produce better yields. But even with these advances, many remain concerned. It is this concern driving some scientists to explore gene editing in an effort to produce super foods for our future.
Gene editing techniques are being used in a number of settings today and are often referred to as precision genetics. Precision medicine uses gene editing to reduce the occurrence or risk of inherited disorders. Now, in a similar fashion, gene editing is being utilized to manipulate livestock to create precision foods. Not only do the animals that result require fewer resources, but they also produce higher quality meats. And beyond their potential in generating super foods, they also some offer some other important benefits.
“With this technology, we can get better dissemination of desirable traits and improve the efficiency of food production. If we can tackle this genetically, then that means less water, less feed and fewer antibiotics we have to put into the animals.” – Jon Oatley, Reproductive Biology Researcher, Washington State University
Gene Editing Research and Precision Foods
In a recent study, researchers from multiple universities have explored how gene editing can create enhanced super foods. Scientists from Washington State University, Utah State University, University of Maryland, and the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh all participated. The group worked with mice, goats, pigs and cattle using precision medicine techniques. Choosing animals believed to offer superior qualities, the scientists sought to boost their reproduction. This was successfully achieved through the use of gene editing in a rather intriguing way.
In the experiments, sperm stem cells from select “super” animals were harvested initially. Then, using CRISPR-Cas9 techniques, male surrogates underwent gene editing to remove a specific gene that prevented their own sperm production. This rendered these “inferior” males sterile. Yet, once donor sperm stem cells from the superior males were placed in surrogate testes, they were no longer sterile. And more importantly, these male surrogates then passed along the superior traits to their offspring that the team desired.
“Anything you can do to accelerate the rate of conventional breeding is going to reduce the environmental footprint of a glass of milk or a pound of meat.” – Alison Van Eenennaam, Animal Geneticist Researcher, University of California, Davis
The Potential Advantages of These Super Foods
In the experiment, naturally the goal was to produce higher quality meats from these animals. But this was not the only goal. The superior genes sought also allowed the livestock to be more resistant to disease. They also required less feed, less water, and required fewer antibiotics to protect their health. This was the desired profile that these super foods were to have through the gene editing process. Ultimately, this approach could markedly enhance food production efficiency and quality for an expanding world.
While improved production of super foods was the main goal, another important also existed. Livestock, and cattle in particular, contribute a significant amount to greenhouse gas emissions. The detrimental effects on climate change has been a long-time concern among environmentalists. Through the gene editing techniques proposed, however, less food and water would be required, and higher yield livestock would exist. This could have notable implications in efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the food production industry.
“There’s a lot out there that I think is still unknown in terms of unintended consequences associated with using genome-editing technology. We’re just trying to get an understanding of what the potential impact is, if any, on safety.” – Heather Lombardi, Director of Animal Bioengineering and Cellular Therapies, FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine
Barriers to Gene Editing and Precision Foods
Researchers involve with this type of gene editing note that this differs from other types of gene modification. Super foods are not created by adding super genes to the livestock. Instead, precision gene editing simply accelerates a natural selection process that might normally occur. In addition, the fertility sperm gene previously mentioned (NANOS2) could be deleted in female livestock, which would render all male offspring sterile. These males could then receive donor sperm from superior livestock without ever having their genes altered. This would create a much simpler process than current methods of artificial insemination used by food producers today.
Despite these positive features, these approaches have negative connotations creating barriers to CRISPR technique acceptance. The proposed techniques in the current research would not be allowed presently under current regulations. Likewise, consumers tend to be very suspicious of foods that have been manipulated in any way. Even though many proponents believe gene editing as a safe process, unknowns do exist when it comes to large-scale use. The industry as a whole seems to be taking baby steps before diving into widespread production of these super foods. Big changes will require not only changes to the existing regulatory environment. It will also require winning over public trust and confidence.
Incentives for Change
Currently, there are more than 1.5 billion cattle on earth, representing a $385 billion industry. Likewise, projections anticipate this industry to expand as beef consumptions continues to grow. This, combined with food shortage concerns, could drive change in current perspectives regarding gene editing and super foods. At the same time, climate change pressures might do the same. Certainly, it’s unlikely that gene edited foods will be coming to a supermarket near you in the immediate future. But precision techniques in agriculture that enhance food quality and production efficiency are likely around the corner. Once push comes to shove, it is probable that broader acceptance of this novel technology will occur.
Health is an important Pillar of a Bold Life. To read more about the Seven Pillars, check out Ed Kopko’s PROJECT BOLD LIFE: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success.