What the heck is gene-edited food? And how is it different from GMOs? Read on.
A farmer holds corn in Minnesota. Photographer: Emilie Richardson/Bloomberg
Gene edited corn | Photo by Emilie Richardson/Bloomberg

Know it or not, gene editing is the surprising new technology that's changing the way we eat. You won't see it labelled on foods, but gene edits are there, reducing trans-fats in oils, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions on farms, and producing higher yields with fewer demands on resources in the fields.

Could this be the future of food we've all been waiting for? To find out, I spoke with a team of scientists at Calyxt to learn more about the technology and with Jennifer Kuzma from the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University to learn about the differences between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and gene-editing.

From Selective Breeding to Gene Editing

The fact is, just about everything we eat has been altered and changed in some way. For hundreds of years, farmers and, later, scientists have been selectively breeding our fruits and veggies to be bigger, sweeter, more highly pigmented, or juicier. They've also been breeding animals to be larger, plants to be resistant to droughts and plagues, and grains to produce higher yields. But the process received a significant upgrade recently in the form of gene editing, a process that can precisely target genes that scientists want to edit or remove.

Travis Frey, Chief Technical Officer at Calyxt, uses the analogy of editing a manuscript. Like precisely editing words on a page, gene editing rewrites or disables DNA to change genes. "You can start from an existing article, and go in and make edits anywhere," says Dr Frey. "What we do is look at all the different words that you want to pull together, and we very precisely look at the words you want to keep and the words you want to eliminate. And so, rather than create a jumbled mess and having to untangle a jumbled mess, we just make the edits to the sentences that we want to make. We only make the edits with the words that are available in the manuscript." No new genes are added.

Chief Executive Officer Jim Blome says, "The result is zero trans fats. The oil has zero olive flavor. It has a cleaner flavor. So, when you're frying or you're cooking with dressings you basically are now able to taste the food as opposed to the greasy, oily taste."

Using their gene-editing technology, Calyxt has created a high oleic soybean oil that has all the health benefits of an olive oil yet requires fewer of the intensive outputs typically needed to grow olives. Unlike olive groves, this variety of soybean plant doesn't require nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which cause harmful field run-off and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The high oleic soybean oil can also be locally grown, which reduces fossil fuel emissions while supporting local agriculture. As a result, this soybean oil is a sustainable choice, healthier for the planet than other oils such as olive and sunflower.

Cooking frying tofu in pan with soybeanoil
Frying tofu in soy bean oil | Photo by Getty Images

GMOs vs. Gene-Edited

So then, how is this any different from GMOs? Well, if the process of gene editing (precise alterations of an organism's existing genes) is roughly comparable to what happens with conventional breeding, where favorable traits are identified and selected for, GMOs are something different. GMOs introduce "foreign" genes into the mix, genes that would not likely be introduced through conventional breeding.

Jennifer Kuzma of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University explains, "Typically GMOs have genes inserted into the genome at random places, and those genes can come from the same species (e.g., a tomato gene altered and engineered back into tomatoes) or from distant species (e.g., across biological kingdoms)." For example, a flounder's gene might be introduced into a tomato to help it withstand freezing cold temperatures.

While gene-editing and GMOs are two different technologies sometimes at odds in public perception, their potential for bringing about a more sustainable planet is an exciting possibility in Kuzma's estimation. She notes, "First generation GM crops were not necessarily made to advance sustainability. Some did reduce pesticides, but others increased herbicide use. Current market-based systems are going to steer technologies toward high-demand products that can be sold widely, like pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GM crops were with farmers all over the globe. I think the government has to invest if sustainability will be the goal of gene editing."