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Transcript for

Does CRISPR make our food unnatural?

 

Lauren

When I went to the grocery store this past week, I was just like, natural, natural, everything is marketed as natural. And certainly not everything can be natural. So it must be a moneymaker.

 

Matthew

That’s food anthropologist Lauren Crossland Marr. Last year she produced a podcast series called a CRISPR bite that explored how gene editing technology is changing our food.

 

Lauren

A lot of the CRISPR proponents and people who are involved in that sector, oftentimes talk about different types of breeding techniques instead of using the word CRISPR. And I think that's really interesting, because there is this kind of affinity towards naturalness when we're talking about our food. And I think as we get more disconnected from these larger processes, people are seeking things like naturalness. 

 

Matthew

This is the nature season of Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler. This week we turn our attention to the naturalness of plant breeding. We’re joined by Dr Lauren Crossland-Marr. 

Lauren  

I'm a food anthropologist. And I've spent most of my career thinking about how can we build healthy food systems. So that started back when I was doing my dissertation research looking at Halal certifiers who are creating notions of what is good and healthy food. And that has culminated into a postdoctoral project on CRISPR. And the promises of technology, if this can address some of the challenges that we have today in building a healthy food system,

 

Matthew 

I want to chat with you about how natural our food systems are. And I’m thinking here about how we produce our food, how we eat. And if we did that, in a, quote, “more natural” way, would that be better? And I know you have a background as a cultural anthropologist, so I'm looking forward to talking to you wearing that hat, but also as a fellow podcaster, who explored how gene editing technology is changing our food, in this fantastic series called A CRISPR Bite. So I really want to hear your views on the quote, naturalness of plant breeding. But before this conversation gets overly philosophical and reflective on what's natural, I want to start with some basics. Can you share what are the differences between traditional plant breeding, genetically modified organisms, and CRISPR, or gene editing?

 

Lauren  

When we're talking about traditional plant breeding, we're talking about what humans have done for 10s of 1000s of years. And that's basically taking plants and breeding them through time, right. So this is a longer time. And so time is actually a really helpful way to think about the differences here. So in a lab, obviously, time is an important commodity. And so when we moved to the lab with GMOs, and with CRISPR, we're looking to take down the amount of time it takes to get the traits that we want to select for. 

 

Matthew

Across all these cases, we breed plants and animals to alter their genetic makeup. In traditional breeding, breeders select plants with desirable traits and cross them. The offspring then inherit some of these traits. You do this again and again, over multiple generations. You select for traits, cross and repeat.

 

Lauren

Whereas genetically modified organisms, we're taking kind of a shortcut, we could say, and going right into the genome and making changes. And so for GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, which came out sometime in the 1980s, we are modifying the genes. So we don't have that long time period, we're not going through generations to select for the traits that we want. The thing with GMOs is that they're a bit clunky. They're an older technology, which means that they oftentimes  - we do not know why the traits stuck, for example, we're just seeing what stuck.  

 

Matthew

And then you’ve got CRISPR, which had its first use in agriculture in the 2010s.

 

Lauren

Essentially with the development of CRISPR, this is a way in which we can actually target the genes that we want to change. So this was a huge revolution that really changed the game, if you will, because we actually could see and target what we wanted to when it comes to changing our editing plants.

 

Matthew

Thinking about the original domestication of the different types of wheat that took 1000s of years and hundreds of 1000s of mutations that were quite random to get us to where we are today. And I guess in this realm of naturalness Are we letting nature decide or letting humans manipulate these traits? And of course, from a human point of view, we would want to speed up this process. 

 

Lauren 

Absolutely. and I think just to add to that, there's a difference in time scale with GMOs and CRISPR. So GMOs, you still have, you still have to breed through generations to get the traits that you want? And typically, with CRISPR, it cuts it way down, because you can target what you need pretty quickly. 

 

Matthew  

So there are clear differences across all three types of breeding. Not only how long it takes to breed these plants or animals. But also, how precise are these technologies, what should regulators consider before approving their release. And then there’s some bigger thoughts - how will this shape future food systems? Does this help or hurt farmers? Is it better or worse for consumers?

 

Matthew  

So let's look at a particular crop. Tomatoes, which were the first crop to be genetically modified in the 1980s. And they are good crops to look at because people like to eat them. Because many people love to eat them. They’re easier plants to modify. And we have good examples of how scientists have been tinkering with tomatoes’ genes. 

Let's start with GMO, then we'll move forward to your story about recording a friend in Japan eating a gene edited CRISPR tomato. So let's go back to the 1980s where the first GM tomatoes were being developed. And I guess my first question is: Why? What prompted this? What problems was this technology trying to solve?

Lauren  

Yeah, so it's an interesting case study, because the tomato that we get in the 1980s is addressing a problem that many of us may not think is really a problem. So it was to create a tomato that could last longer as it was being shipped from the place of production to stores and things like that. So it wasn't really to add nutrition, which is what we often hear right now, especially with CRISPR. But with the GMO technology, it was really to make it last longer. And so it was called a Flvr saver tomato. And if you're Googling that. It was in that time period when we didn't like vowels in these new product names. Flavor saver without an A and O. But it was an interesting case study because it was the first, and I spoke to the scientists who led that project and wrote a book about it. Which I highly, highly recommend. 

 

Matthew 

So this scientist was Dr. Belinda Martineau. And she was involved in the first GM tomato, and we'll link to her book, First fruit on our show notes. So while Dr. Belinda Martineau was passionate about the science behind this project, she grew increasingly concerned about how the business interests might be overshadowing the science. Can you dive a bit deeper into what she was worried about? 

 

Lauren  

I think one of the things that we see with technologies like GMOs and CRISPR. Is that we see promises of really addressing grand challenges, you know, like hunger and climate change. These are often the talking points. And what we find, though, at least in the applications that we've seen of GMOs, is that these are actually business led, and often do not address those grand challenges. And so one of the concerns that Belinda had was not just that this is a tomato that is purely for the science to see what we can do, and tinkering in labs and things like that, but that it had to make money. So when the business interests kind of become part of the narrative, we see some complicated ethical things happen, I guess you could say, including some of her charts she had to change to make them more, quote unquote, accessible to others. 

 

Matthew  

You said in the episode that they suggested removing the error bars on one of the charts, which is a very controversial thing to ask a scientist to do. 

 

Lauren

Yes, she had a lot of trouble with that. And I think one of the things that that led her to really think about is how is the business interest impacting the science? And are we really doing the best we can for the science and for the world? So when business interests become part of it, what does that mean? And she became a bit jaded about the business interests involved. Because when you have to scale up and make money, it becomes a different game.  

 

Matthew

Do you see this as a legitimate reason not to develop or explore the potential of certain technologies, like GMOs or gene editing? 

 

Lauren  

Yeah, I think the applications of gene editing technologies can be very positive. You know, I don't think that they're going to address these grand challenges that I mentioned.

 

Matthew

Hunger and climate change.

 

Lauren

Exactly. Because these are really about business interests. 

 

Matthew

Quick aside here. I know GMs are complicated and contentious. So much so that entire regions in the world have completely different sets of regulations around their use. But as this episode presents a more cautious story around GMs, and quite a critical view when considering the broader industrial food system and profit motives that often supports them, I want to quickly make the case for them.

So in food and agriculture, GMOs and CRISPR are powerful tools that can be used to increase crop yields and to build resilience against pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions, they offer the potential to enhance the nutritional content of certain crops, reduce the need for chemical pesticides and decrease post-harvest losses. All of this exists within a bigger context , but if you want to hear a fuller defense of GMOS and how their potential is held back by other interests, you can listen to our episode with Channa Prakash’s from 2 years ago, which we’ll put a link to in our show notes.

 

Lauren

There's certainly positive sides to CRISPR and GMO technology. However, I think that we need to be cognizant and open about what that looks like. Right? So instead of promising the public that CRISPR is going to change the world. I think it's more important to give them the tools to understand what the technology is. And be very upfront about the fact that it can't really address these problems. It's just gonna continue to support an industrial farming system that we have in place today that is not sustainable.

 

Matthew  

In A CRISPR bite in the tomato episode, you explored its possibility, not this time to extend the shelf life, or to say, improve flavor. But it was a new problem this time. What was the technology trying to solve now? 

 

Lauren  

So this time, it was actually adding a nutritional component, GABA, which is an amino acid that's supposed to help with relaxation. The studies are, let's say, equivocal on this, some scientists have found that it does actually help with relaxation. So the Japanese company Sanatech seeds decided to create a tomato where they could incorporate GABA to help people relax.

 

Matthew 

Could you talk about your episode, what did you find out about speaking to someone who was trying a tomato?

 

Lauren  

Yeah, so we ended up trying to reach out to Sanatech seeds, I actually called them a few times and to no avail. 

 

Matthew

Lauren wanted to find out more about the development of the tomato. How many people are        actually eating it? And where is it sold? 

 

Lauren

Turns out, it's almost exclusively online, which was a big difference from the 1980s. Because in the 1980s, there was obviously no internet. So the direct to consumer Link was much more difficult. But today, Sanitech seeds has a number of growers, and then they actually sell the tomato on a website through a third party. And so what was really interesting with that is I was able to get a good friend of mine, her cousin who lives in Tokyo, to order the tomatoes and try them. And she said that they were a little bit more sour, but basically, tasted like a normal tomato. They also had a tomato sauce or paste that you could buy. She said that was pretty much the same. And what's interesting is that she wasn't skeptical, really about trying this tomato. She just kind of really enjoyed it. It was a bit costly. That was the other thing, though, is I think she said it was about twice as much as she would normally pay at the grocery store for the amount of tomato she got.

 

Matthew  

Right? I was gonna ask if she made it a regular part of her diet?

 

Lauren  

No, no, she she couldn't afford to.

 

Matthew  

So we don't know if Haru has become deeply meditative, eating these calming tomatoes that reportedly lower blood pressure.

 

Lauren  

That's right, we don't know. And she didn't go to a doctor after either. So. But we will take her word for it. She did say she felt a little bit more relaxed. But that could just be a tomato.

 

Matthew

I mean, it's interesting that you found someone who tasted a CRISPR product, because they're pretty nascent. Are there other examples of products in stores at the moment? 

 

Lauren  

Yes there are actually in my State of California, there are gonna be a few greens that are coming hitting shelves in the next month or two. Actually, if they're not already, I've been trying to keep an eye out and see if I can pick some up. So there's a number in California, and a couple of other places around the world. But you're right, it's really at the beginning right now. 

 

Matthew 

Potentially quite a big explosion of the application of this technology in the years to come. And we could talk about the goods and bads of that later on. 

 

Lauren

Absolutely. 

 

Matthew

So, I would say in the whole year a little bit skeptical of these technologies. Is that fair? 

 

Lauren

Yeah, I think so. 

 

Matthew

At least more cautious than some geneticist and companies that really want to see these gene edited technologies unleashed into the world, in our food systems for all the potential benefits they might bring. I'm curious, where does that skepticism come from? Is it the science, is it your values? How do you navigate that?  

 

Lauren

Well,I think it's both actually, the science and value part of it. When I first started the CRISPR bite podcast project, and actually the CRISPR project in general, I didn't really have a feeling about where I was gonna go. I was really open to the technology, I was excited, like most are about its applications in addressing some really big issues and challenges. But as I got more into the history, and the ways in which the technology is being used, I became a little bit more, let's say skeptical. And I think there are many benefits. But one of the things that came out of the podcast that was really, really important to me. and speaks to the science side of things is that you have a double strand break with these technologies. And there are many different ways that those double strand breaks can get repaired. And so there's a lot of unknowns. And the way that the science is communicated is that it is targeted, it is safe. But what we found when talking to critics and skeptics is that maybe it's not as safe as we think it might be. And that there are other solutions that have past histories that could work for the same problems that CRISPR is trying to address.

 

Matthew  

I think some of the proponents might say, well, in all technologies, in all plant breeding technologies, there are unknowns in the process. And I also think CRISPR proponents are trying to dodge some of the negative public perceptions that are carried with GMOs. You could think of all the endless documentaries that you might find on Netflix about it. But personally, I find it really interesting because it is indeed a much more precise way of breeding crops and controlling for different outcomes. So do you think it's fair to carry kind of the same layer of skepticism to GMs as you would to CRISPR?

 

Lauren  

It's a great question. And I think yes, and no. Now I'm going to be equivocal here. I think that there is a way to think about CRISPR technology as being something very positive. But again, one of the things that we don't have is the amount of regulation that I think such technologies call for. So one of the things to mention is that when you do make these changes, you don't always have to look at the whole genome. So there can be other changes that happen within this larger genome, especially when you're using more complicated target species. So one of the things that I would think about is yes, it is more precise than GMs. Absolutely. But does that mean it's 100% accurate and does it need regulation? Or regulation that makes us look at those basic things like comparing the whole genome in animal species in particular? 

 

Matthew  

So one final question on this before we put on our philosophical hats, so assuming we get the regulation right, whatever that might look like, what's the best case scenario for unleashing CRISPR technology into our food system?

 

Lauren  

Yeah, I think the best case scenario is that we'll have some really interesting plants on the market. The one of the ones that is coming to market soon is a mustard green that isn't as pungent for example.The best case scenario is not solving these big challenges. But you know, having some cool mustard greens that you can add to a salad that don't make you pucker your lips. And, you know, these are use cases, but I think they speak to the broader business interests at play that won't be necessarily addressing things like hunger, but will be providing some interesting examples of foods that we might be that could be fun to have at a dinner party or something. 

 

Matthew  18:25

So not a revolutionary game changer in the eyes of Lauren Crossland Marr.

 

Lauren  18:30

Not at this point. But who knows.

 

Matthew

Quickly jumping in here. Not to detract from Lauren, but this is not a very exciting best-case scenario. And there are thousands of researchers working on this technology who have a much more positive vision for this. Here’s one take from our first episode of this season with Jayson Lusk, Vice President of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resource at Oklahoma State University.

 

Jayson

I think the examples related to gene editing are almost endless in terms of potential application, both related to agronomic practices, disease resistance, but also in terms of consumer facing characteristics, whether it's kind of non-browning, apples, non-browning avocados, all those sorts of things. To the extent people have had concerns about unintended consequences, in some ways, this is much more precise than even traditional plant breeding methods that we've long been using.

Matthew 

CRISPR is such an interesting lens to explore questions around what's natural. As someone who's researched this technology and its role in our food system. How do you think about “naturalness”, about naturalness in our food systems? Is a more natural food system desired? Or is that a completely irrelevant question in your eyes?

 

Lauren 

It's really funny, because the way that natural is constructed is what I find incredibly interesting. So as I mentioned, a lot of the CRISPR proponents and people who are involved in that sector, oftentimes talk about different types of breeding techniques instead of using the word crisper. And I think that's really interesting, because there is this kind of affinity towards naturalness when we're talking about our food. And I think as we get more disconnected from these larger processes, people are seeking things like naturalness. But that's really, really difficult to define. Because it's, it's part of a cultural system, which I get really interested in, you know, what, what are these boundaries? And how do people perceive things like natural and unnatural? And it really is changes across who you talk to. And I think one of the things that's really interesting in particular when we're talking about naturalness, and CRISPR, is that CRISPR is oftentimes touted as something that is natural right, just speeding up the process. of this naturalness. Many of those who are worried about CRISPR use have anxieties about it do not see it this way. But it's still interesting that the topic of something like natural can be applied even to CRISPR. So what does that say about our modern society? Those are big questions. But exciting ones.

 

Matthew 

I spoke to an economist for the podcast, Jayson Lusk, who you just heard making the case for the CRISPR. Who said, people just have positive associations around natural so it will be continuously used as a marketing tool, regardless of the kind of deeper meaning behind it. 

 

Lauren  

Absolutely. Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. 

 

Matthew 

I want to pick up on something else that you mentioned, which is that different people might have different understandings of “natural” - whether that's culturally related or geographically related. Are you able to share a few examples of how people perceive naturalness differently? 

 

Lauren  

Sure. And I think CRISPR, again, provides a really interesting lens to look at this. You know, for example, when I talked to Dr. Belinda Martineau. She was really interested in talking about how this is not a natural process, I think she said the CRISPR, in one of my interviews that didn't make it into the tape, she said that it was like, we were using bow and arrows with something like GM crops and developing those. And when you get to CRISPR, you're using a Tomahawk missile. So very much relating this to technologies and anything but natural. You know, I don't want to speak for her. But I think one of the things that came out of that conversation for me was thinking about CRISPR is something that isn't a natural process.

Matthew

Most of what we covered in the episode was around the application of CRISPR in plants, but gene editing is increasingly being explored in animal husbandry too.

Lauren

In the hornless cattle episode, we spoke with Dr. Allison van Eenennaam, who at her lab at UC Davis, had created hornless cattle, which if many of you don't know, cattle are often - their horns are culled when they're young, so that they don't hurt their handlers or other livestock. And one of the ways in which she decided to use that project was applying a closely related technology to CRISPR called TALEN, but very similar. And one of the ways that she talked about it was very much along these lines of it's just speeding up the breeding process. So that's a soundbite we hear a lot, especially from proponents of CRISPR. 

There is some gray area here. But we spoke a lot to people on both sides of this debate. There wasn't really this, like, I want to say we tried to incorporate this middle ground, but it was really hard to find people who are working in the sector who don't have really like strong feelings about the technology. Those on the other side of the debate, I would say we're very much against this kind of natural narrative, when applying it to CRISPR. People like at GM watch, for example, who were very much - had a lot of anxiety around calling CRISPR something natural because it distracted from the technology and the ways in which it can be problematic.

 

Matthew 

You mentioned there wasn't exactly a middle ground. And I find that with a lot of food debates is that you have people that are quite heated on either side. But in this instance, I think there is a group of people who would see a specific context in which this technology would have say a better use. And maybe one category where you might find that is the animal welfare concerns. So in terms of the hornless cattle, in terms of say, sexing chickens, so they become laying hens rather than male chickens, which are immediately culled because roosters don't have a function in a egg laying scenario. So why don't we find a middle ground, in this particular instance, and honestly in other food debates as well?

 

Lauren 

I think honestly, I'm a little bit in the middle-skeptic, if you will. But I also think that one of the things with media is that you're talking to people who are very much either pro or anti, you don't really have space to talk to the normal person and with CRISPR in particular, we noticed that many people didn't know about CRISPR. But most people are going to see CRISPR first on their plates. And so when I talk to people, just you know, dinner parties or I'm speaking to neighbors, and they ask me what I do, and I say, “Well, I'm studying CRISPR.” They don't know what it is. And if they do know what it is, they know that it's going to be applied in medicine. And that's a really important use case. We can see some really, really important applications using CRISPR in medicine. By the way, medicine has a lot of regulation around it. So we have seen that regulation be very much instituted, and it has not impacted innovation by any means. So just that's a really important thing to highlight. 

But I think, when it comes to ethical treatment of animals, where I tend to kind of maybe be a little bit more on the skeptical side of things, is that, in a sense, we are just continuing to support this unsustainable food system. So that was one of the things that we found with hornless cattle. Again, CRISPR isn't being used to fix climate change, it's being used to continue this food system in which we actually have to pack in these animals so tight that we have to, for example, cull off the the horns of of, of cattle. So I think that more broadly, it's a question of, where do you stand on what you hope a food system will look like a healthy food system will look like, a natural food system will look like. We were speaking to people who were intimately aware of CRISPR when the majority of people don't know anything about it when it's being applied to the food system, which is a huge problem, which is why your podcast is great and why we undertook the project in the first place.

 

Matthew  

Dr. Lauren Crossland Marr. Thank you so much for speaking with us. 

 

Lauren

Thank you so much for having me.

 

Matthew

I really liked Lauren’s reflection at the end:  “where do you stand on what you hope a healthy food system will look like?” I think that’s so pivotal for shaping what types of tools and technologies we each want to see in the world to help bring that desired future into existence.

 

Like Lauren, I share the concern that these technologies could concentrate power in the hands of a few biotech companies. Ones that are well resourced to become very good at deploying their solution.  Can we trust that they’re doing it for the good of society and not just to fatten their wallets? I hope so. But even with altruistic motives, there’s still the issue of what types of farmers have access to these different technologies.

 

But I’m also less skeptical than Lauren on the use of CRISPR itself. I understand it’s difficult to separate the pure science of it from the complicated real-world application.

 

The dilemma remains - do we work within an industrial food system to try and improve it, or do we work to scale out an alternative food system that could viably replace it. Personally, I don’t land neatly in either of those camps, and I hope technologies like CRISPR could provide a transitional path to a more resilient food system. 

 

This is where I find myself in this awkward middle, pretty sympathetic to different points of view. You’re going to hear me confront similar dilemmas in our next episode, exploring “the unnaturalness of cultivated meat.”

 

Again, thanks to Lauren Crossland Marr. I highly recommend you check out her podcast A CRISPR Bite. And thanks to you for listening. TABLE has been very busy lately. Not just expanding our collaboration to the Americas, but putting up new blogs, letterboxes, explainers and events on our website. Take a look around if you haven’t in awhile at tabledebates.org/

 

This episode was edited and produced by me, Matthew Kessler. Music by Blue dot Sessions. Talk to you next week.

 

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