What Benefits Can Gene Editing Bring to Food Quality and Sustainability?

Gene editing is a technology that’s making headlines for the variety of ways it can be used to improve food and benefit the environment.

This is an especially exciting time as scientists are seeing their research applied in the field, leading to food that is healthier, better quality and more sustainably produced.

High-oleic soybean oil is the first gene-edited food product available on the market. This heart-healthy oil has zero trans fats, longer shelf life and performs well in baking and frying.

“We wanted to use gene editing to create a soybean variety that was higher in monounsaturated fats and compete effectively with oils like sunflower, canola or olive oil,” said Dr. Dan Voytas, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who helped develop the gene-edited high-oleic soybean.

The innovation was possible because gene editing allows for very precise changes in the plant’s genome, Dr. Voytas said.

Dr. Steve Whitham is working to improve soybeans, an important crop that is used in food, oil and animal feed. One goal of his research is to make farming more sustainable by helping farmers grow more using fewer inputs and natural resources.

“It’s estimated that we lose 15 to 20 percent of the soybean crop to diseases each year,” said Dr. Whitham, professor at Iowa State University and co-director of the Crop Bioengineering Center. “In the last severe drought in 2012, we lost 9 percent of soybean yield. Disease and environmental stress such as drought are important factors that prevent the soybean crop from reaching its full yield potential.”

Researchers are also using gene editing to increase the protein content of soybeans for use in plant-based foods and as a source of feed for animals.

Three years ago, Best Food Facts spoke to Dr. Jessica Lyons at the University of California-Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) about using gene editing to improve cassava, an important part of the diet for nearly 1 billion people in the world. The plant contains compounds that can cause people to be poisoned from cyanide if the root has not been sufficiently processed. If people are ingesting the cyanide, over time, this can lead to neurological disorders.

For the team developing the cassava plant, the project has personal meaning.

“Growing up in a Colombian family, I knew cassava by the name yuca. It would be part of many delicious meals at home. So for me, there is a personal connection to working on this crop,” said Dr. Michael Gomez, also of the IGI. “I was surprised to learn about cassava’s toxicity and how it could negatively affect consumers in dire circumstances. Generating non-toxic cassava is a stellar use of the CRISPR technology and has the potential to mitigate global food challenges.”

The researchers are excited to see their research come to fruition.

We have shown, in three different cassava varieties, that we have completely prevented cyanogenesis. That is, we have used genome editing to make plants that don’t make cyanide,” Dr. Lyons said. Read more about the research here.

What is gene editing?

“Gene editing is a very precise way of modifying genes within a plant cell. The types of edits that we create are no different than the variation in genes that occurs in nature,” Dr. Whitham said.

CRISPR is one common technique used for gene editing. The process is a way of speeding up the natural evolution of genetics.

“Traditional breeding methods can be laborious and time-consuming. With gene editing, the desired DNA alterations can be acquired within a single generation and the end product could be indistinguishable from a traditionally bred crop,” Dr. Gomez said.

How can gene editing help the environment?

In addition to improving food, gene editing can also help farmers control diseases and adapt to changing environmental conditions.

“There are many benefits to the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of producing soybeans, as well as reducing the application of crop protection products,” Dr. Whitham said. “We’re learning more about genes that control plant responses to disease and stress.”

By precisely editing these genes, the plants can be made to better resist disease and withstand stress. Scientists see many ways gene editing can be applied to create climate solutions.

“Genome editing is a great precision breeding tool. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing climate, there’s an urgent need for new climate-resilient crop varieties, and this tool has the potential to help us breed them more quickly and more precisely than conventional breeding,” Dr. Lyons said. “It can have huge benefits for agriculture, including for disease resistance, and even for climate change mitigation — for example, it could be used to engineer plants with deeper roots that store more carbon in the soil.”

Dr. Voytas said gene editing might be used to develop soybean oil that is similar to palm oil. That enhances sustainability, as palm oil production often leads to deforestation and the oil must be transported great distances.

“We could easily use gene editing to create a palm oil equivalent that is produced locally and sustainably,” he said.

Gene editing is a technology being used to make precise changes in genetic material to improve food quality and increase the sustainability of farming and food.

Developed with support of United Soybean Board