The sale of the first CRISPR-edited food – The tomato
Nancy Stitt discusses the genetically edited tomato that has recently gone on sale in Japan
When you hear about CRISPR gene-editing technology you probably think of designer babies or science fiction. However, this technology may now feature in your lunchtime salad! That’s right, the first CRISPR gene-edited food has gone on sale in Japan, in the form of a tomato. The Japanese start-up, Sanatech Seed, began shipping these tomatoes on September 17th 2021, with their website stating that their goal is to use ‘the latest innovative biotechnology to improve crops and protect tomorrow’s children and tomorrow’s planet’.
The tomatoes that they have produced have an induced mutation in GABA synthase, which leads to a fivefold increase in GABA levels. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter for the central nervous system and can block signals between nerve connections, slowing down the brain’s functions. Some research shows that these levels of GABA can have a calming effect in the body, with an article in the molecules journal stating that GABA may help to treat conditions like diabetes, insomnia and high blood pressure. You would usually need to eat a high quantity of tomatoes to receive these health benefits, but according to Hiroshi Egami, the Director and Chief Technology Officer of Sanatech, with their new tomatoes they have ‘succeeded in accumulating an amount of GABA that can be expected to have a sufficient effect with an amount that can be added to one side dish a day’. However, there is some debate as to how beneficial GABA actually is, with an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology stating that experts are unclear as to whether people are just experiencing a placebo response in the studies surrounding GABA.
The tomatoes that they have produced have an induced mutation in GABA synthase, which leads to a fivefold increase in GABA levels
While this new technology may sound futuristic or scary, it is important to remember that most of the produce that we consume today has been genetically modified in some way. If you look at modern bananas, they have gone through hundreds of years of selective breeding, with farmers breeding together different varieties to obtain their preferred characteristics. This CRISPR technology just accomplishes what could be achieved naturally, in a much more efficient and easy way, with scientists able to control which genes are activated, silenced or introduced. Therefore, because these changes to the tomatoes could have occurred naturally, in Japan they are not considered genetically modified, so can legally be sold. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also issued a similar statement saying that it would not regulate crops whose genetic changes could have been produced by conventional breeding, whereas the European court of justice ruled that gene-edited crops should be strictly regulated as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).
Researchers predict that it is only a matter of time before our supermarket shelves are filled with GM products, however there is still a lot of fear from the general public surrounding these developments. Jennifer Kuzma, a scientist at Carolina State University, said that US consumers would be willing to pay 20% more for their food to not be genetically modified, and over half of the public will actively avoid buying these products. Kuzma argues that the main aspect that the public fear is the ‘human-controlled laboratory step’, so education of the public about the safety of these new products may be needed.
US consumers would be willing to pay 20% more for their food not to be genetically modified
There are many concerns over how this CRISPR technology will affect agriculture, including the fact that gene-edited seeds will need to be patented, so farmers and sellers will have to pay more for them. This could mean that only larger, more industrial farms will be able to afford them, increasing inequality. However, it could also be argued that if rich countries ban this gene-editing technology in agriculture, then the poorer countries that would benefit more from changes like increased productivity, fewer pesticides, and more nutrient-rich food, would suffer.