Transforming Agriculture with CRISPR/Cas-9

Last week’s 8-minute presentation was hardly enough time to cover the broad application of CRISPR-Cas9 to treat and cure diseases in not only humans but in plants. According to the World Bank, agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity, and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. In a recent U.N. climate-change summit, leaders set ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and develop sustainable food systems to address world hunger. However, political challenges in the U.S. and other developed nations prevent us from taking aggressive policy measures to reverse declining crop yields worldwide. 

This blog will highlight some of the challenges facing global agriculture and how CRISPR-Cas9 can play a role in helping agronomists and farmers grow climate and disease-resistant crops to conserve natural resources, protect the environment, and help feed the world. 


Evidence of Crop Production Losses 

Niger, a rustic and arid Western African country, experiences an average temperature of 113 degrees and a short rainfall season in January and February, where temperatures usually drop to an average of 70 degrees. The combination of a short rainy season and sweltering heat prevents small farm holders and nomadic pastoralists from growing crops and keeping cattle alive. 

More than 80% of Niger’s population depends on agriculture for food and income; many households grow crops and raise livestock to feed their families. However, with consistent droughts and flooding, critical crops such as wheat, soy, and rice are regressing in yields. According to Bloomberg Green, West Africa expects to lose 68.9% of cropland by 2050 due to droughts. 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in San Joaquin Valley, California, the most productive agricultural region in the United States, anticipates losing at least 535,000 acres of agriculture production by 2040, which is more than a tenth of the area’s farmland, according to The NY Times. However, California Central Valley is no stranger to extended drought periods. Still, the latest cuts to surface water allocation on the state and federal levels force farmers to find underground water sources to stay afloat. 

Source: Chatham House, Arnell et al (2019)


The Application CRISPR Cas-9 

The impact of climate change on our agriculture is worsening, and we need solutions to start reversing the troubling global trend in agriculture. Fortunately, there are many emerging technologies helping improve crop production and increase yields to meet the growing demand for food worldwide. However, the challenge with these new technologies is that it’s not easy to teach to poorer nations. Conversely, CRISPR is relatively easy to learn, cheaper, and faster. And with proper training, developing countries can grow drought-free corn and other vegetables without paying high prices to purchase costly seeds from private corporations. 

Furthermore, researchers and scientists are actively exploring the range of possibilities of gene editing in plants using CRISPR. According to National Geographic, CRISPR technology can reduce gluten in wheat, create a mushroom that doesn’t brown, lower unhealthy fats in soybeans, and much more. Researchers are also using CRISPR to bolster cacao’s and beta carotene’s ability to fight off destructive viruses devastating crops in West Africa. 

But’s what the difference between using CRISPR Cas-9 and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)? In short, GMOs consist of transferring genes from one plant to another plant. With these GMOs, farmers can extend the life of their crops by spraying herbicides, a chemical to control undesirable vegetation, to create disease-resistant crops. Although GMOs have been subject to government regulations and public scrutiny across Europe and the U.S., given the implications of mixing genes between plants. You may have noticed that the GMO label on some food products in the grocery store intends to comply with legal requirements. 

However, agricultural scientists can reach the same goals with CRISPR without transferring genes from one plant to another. Moreover, similar to germline human genome editing, which affects all cells in an organism, scientists can make permanent changes in a plant’s genome, passing on to seeds. Similarly, the ethical concerns we discussed last week about editing the human embryo remain an issue in even plants. So far, government regulations have not kept pace with technological advancements in bioengineering. And with CRISPR, regulators are resisting stricter labeling rules on foods modified by CRISPR since it doesn’t contain foreign DNA. In fact, Canola was the first gene-edited crop to go on the market in 2019, but we wouldn’t notice it without labels. 

Source: National Geographic, Why Gene Editing Is the Next Food Revolution

In Closing

The promise of CRISPR/Cas-9 is undeniable, and it can drastically change how we grow and consume foods in the future. It can also help developing countries independently raise fortified livestock to improve the health of their families and boost their economy. In the United States and Europe, we can have healthier, tastier foods at a lower cost while also mitigating supply chain disruptions. Nonetheless, CRISPR Cas9 is not a silver bullet, and it cannot end world hunger or climate change by itself. There are still many obstacles before CRISPR technology can be scaled and produced fast enough to meet demand. More importantly, can policymakers and private companies gain consumers’ trust to use this technology on foods we eat daily? It’s hard to argue the benefits, but the potential issues to prevent using this technology for malicious purposes should be a top priority as this revolutionary tool continues to advance.


References:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/food-technology-gene-editing

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-13/world-faces-growing-risk-of-food-shortages-due-to-climate-change

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/30/climate/nyt-climate-newsletter-california-drought.html

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-49167-0

18 comments

  1. This is a great compliment to your presentation! I’ve always been fascinated in the evolution and modernization of food production and agricultural processes that have a net neutral, or even negative impact on the environment. I think this is a promising addition to those practices, as, like you pointed out, where there are short comings with GMO’s, CRISPR can step in to solve the same problem in a much different way. Interestingly, this may be a way to solve the current GMO banana extinction event (the banana we eat today is not the same banana as the 1950’s!).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Karl. There is scientific research on using CRISPR/Cas-9 to reverse extinction in fruits and even animals. In fact, a company is currently working on bringing back the Woolly Mammoth by 2027 using CRISPR. So, I’m sure a solution to solve the current GMO banana extinction is around the corner.

  2. So fascinating! Thank you for elaborating on this application of CRISPR in agriculture. I think this is a unique facet of digital transformation that we don’t necessarily think of when we’re picturing robots taking over our workspaces or everyone transitioning into the metaverse, but this sort of evolution is likely to impact broader swaths of the population and also has the potential to lay the groundwork to transform the food industry and open doors for more “traditional” digital applications to help even further with protecting natural resources, extending access to nourishing food, etc. I look forward to researching this topic even further.

    1. Thank you for your response, Christina. After learning about CRISPR Cas-9 potential to solve so many problems ailing humanity, I instantly became obsessed. I definitely encourage more research on this topic.

  3. Great followup to a solid presentation

    1. Thank you, Professor Kane.

  4. While CRISPR is so promising, what isn’t is the speed at which it’s approved to be put to good use. After learning the FDA took 6 years to approve its use in treating sickle cell disease, I certainly hope they can move at a faster pace in agriculture. I have a friend that’s a chemical engineer working on GMO agriculture and he was fired up to hear about this blog, which I sent along to him. He used to share an office with a company called Inari who uses this technology with seeds. They have a pretty cool website you should check them out.

    1. I absolutely agree, getting this type of technology approved for broader use is an unnecessary obstacle in certain cases. We always talk about government responding slow to emerging technologies that are available to improve society. Thank you for sharing my blog with your friend that works in GMO agriculture.

  5. This is a great post! I wasn’t aware of the possibility of modifying plants with CRISPR technology. If deemed safe, I believe this could be the breakthrough we need in order to address the shortage of food in several regions of the world. Also I find particularly interesting the comparison of CRISPR and GMOs, as GMOs have historically kept a negative connotation, I would like to see how CRISPR can distanciate from that. I would love to discuss this further in class!

    1. Thank you, Yana. And I’m also interested to see if governments will force companies to label foods that were modified using CRISPR. Currently, they don’t see a need since it doesn’t include any foreign cells, but that could change if advocates force lawmakers to take a more aggressive stance. You also raised an important issue about safety, in which companies and governments will near to partner to ensure consumers are receiving important information about gene edited food.

  6. Great job! Love the deeper dive on CRISPR. I believe this will solve a lot of the problems that we are facing with climate change and crops. Coffee production is being affected by the higher temperatures and this technology will allow the creation of crops that are more effective in dealing with climate change phenomena. I am wondering if they will actually taste better and if will be actually healthier for us.

    1. Thank you, Carlos, for sharing your thoughts. And believe it or not, geneticist have already created tomatoes that taste a whole lot better and healthier than what we are use to. The next step is testing it for safety and getting it approved by governments across the world.

  7. As many have noted, you’ve really leveraged the blog format to extend your presentation subject matter – well done!

    Add CRISPR to the list of things I’d never heard of before in this class (I’m looking at you Lemonade Insurance!) And I really appreciate how both in your presentation and this post, you anticipate the natural questions that might come up (well, natural to me, at least.) For your in class presentation, it was me thinking, “I really hope he explains what CRISPR is…” and in this blog post it was me thinking, “Wait a minute, how is this different than GMO?”

    And lastly, just like the video clip you showed, the visual you included in this post was very elucidating for me.

    1. Thank you, Ravi, for your kind words. As I researched this topic, I had so many questions and included the ones I thought would be on the mind of someone learning this for the first time. I’m happy that the presentation and blog contributed to your learning experience in the class.

  8. Great post! CRISPR is a a huge hot topic right now in the world of science but I never heard of it being used for agriculture! I know there is a lot of pushback against GMO foods in America, primarily since people are unaware of what it means. I’m hoping that CRISPR doesn’t fall into the same realm of being ostracized from markets due to marketing of brands to make it seem unsafe.

    1. I absolutely agree, and with so much misinformation circulating the web its a real concern. My hope is that it won’t become a political issue or the next conspiracy topic on Reddit. It’s going to require a collaborative effort between the government, medical community, and the private sector.

  9. Really interesting take on how to fully utilize CRISPR! Thanks for this breakdown. I think one potential issue that you hit on, governmental intervention and regulation, will really prove to be the biggest bottleneck to full integration of this technology. Political lobbying will probably be the biggest detriment to a faster migration to CRISPR advances in crops, just with the tax money and governmental input at every level of farming revenues and operations.

    1. Thanks, Bryan, and it appears this is a concern among others in our class. It’s going to require bipartisanship and good faith efforts by private media organizations to explore the benefits and truth’s behind this revolutionary tool. But with CRISPR’s potential to protect crops from global warming, I can see it as a win on both sides of the aisle.

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