Is Gene-Edited Food Safe to Eat?
Gene editing is being used to address a number of important challenges in our world. In the field of medicine, scientists are researching how gene editing can treat diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia and a wide range of genetic disorders. Read How can CRISPR treat disease?
In agriculture, gene editing is being used in plants and animals to reduce disease and the impact of pests. Read more about the science of gene editing.
In the United States, we rely on a network of government agencies to ensure the safety of all food, including food produced using advanced breeding techniques like gene editing.
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food made from plants and animals developed using gene editing. All foods regulated by the FDA that are produced, processed, stored, shipped or sold in the United States are held to the same safety standards.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the safety of gene editing in plants.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes sure gene-edited organisms do not pose risks to human health or the environment.
For example, before gene-edited livestock used in food production can be sold in the U.S., the developer is required to complete FDA’s safety review process. This process includes submitting years of research and trial data to prove the application is both safe and effective. In 2022, FDA ruled that the first slick-haired cattle that were gene-edited to better tolerate heat are “low risk and do not raise any safety concerns.”
We reached out to three experts to get their insights on this new technology that has the potential to significantly improve our food system. Dr. Jennifer Kuzma is the Goodnight-NC GSK Foundation Distinguished Professor in Social Sciences at North Carolina State University and co-founder and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center; Dr. Zhongde Wang is a Professor in the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences at Utah State University and Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou is the Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University.
How is gene editing being used in food and agriculture?
Dr. Kuzma: “Most of the gene editing work taking place now involves making food healthier or more sustainable. Gene edits have been made for yield enhancements, increasing nutrients in plants, improving taste and heat and cold tolerance and disease resistance for plants and animals.”
Dr. Wang: “In livestock, gene editing has been used to introduce single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) among different breeds of a species to improve certain traits, such as heat tolerance, resistance to infectious disease, etc.”
Learn more about how gene editing is being used in food:
- Tomatoes with more Vitamin D
- Soybean oil without trans fats
- Cows with a slick coat to tolerate heat
- Better tasting mustard greens
- Progress toward disease-resistant pigs
- Removing allergens from wheat, peanuts and milk
- Developing more sustainable ingredients
What is the potential impact of gene editing technology?
Dr. Barrangou: “I think it’s a game changer. Think about the ability to recode the code of life of organisms from very simple basic viruses to microscopic bacteria all the way to sophisticated large organisms, like animals including livestock that we eat, plants, including crops that we consume, and of course, humans, for all the medical applications we can think of and even in environmental stewardship, things like trees and forestry. It’s a transformative, disruptive technology that allows humankind to recode the code of life.”
Because gene editing has so many uses, it is important that technology developers use the powerful tool safely and transparently. Learn what the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture is doing to build trust in gene editing.
Is it safe to eat gene-edited foods?
Dr. Wang: “With scientific vigor, regulatory oversights and approvals, it is safe to consume foods from gene-edited plants and animals. Any genetic changes, including any unintentional changes, and biological consequences need to be clearly validated. It is safe to say that, if a naturally existing trait from one animal is engineered into another in the same species, there should be no concern to consume the food from the edited animal.”
Dr. Barrangou: “90 to 95% of all the genome editing work is focusing on human therapeutics. There are hundreds of people who have been dosed with genome editing, medicines, therapies and therapeutics that enable us to correct ‘typos’ in human DNA that are responsible for terminal diseases. The FDA is confident enough to dose American citizens with CRISPR medicines because it is safe. I would argue that if it’s safe enough to put in our veins, it’s safe enough to put in our mouths.”
As gene-edited foods start to become available, what assurances can we have that they will be safe?
Dr. Kuzma: “The first thing is to keep in mind that companies do not want to offer a product that isn’t safe. Companies have their own internal checks to look for possible issues. The second thing is that there is a consultation process through the Food and Drug Administration. Companies submit data to FDA, which will look for different compositional changes in the product that might trigger a safety issue.”
To date, there are two gene-edited foods on the market — a purple tomato with increased antioxidants and soybean oil high in oleic acid. A new, better-tasting leafy green has also received USDA approval and will be introduced in the summer of 2023. There are hundreds more gene-edited foods in the development pipeline and they must all go through the stringent regulatory review and approval process before they can be sold in the U.S. Learn more about the specific regulations FDA has for plants and animals.
Gene editing is a technology that makes precise changes in the genome of an organism. A network of U.S. regulatory agencies provide oversight using a stringent review and approval process to make sure gene-edited foods are safe for people, animals and the environment.