SXSW Panel Recap: The First CRISPR Foods Have Arrived

Ready or not, more resilient food through DNA altering is here

l-r: Vipula Shukla, Elena del Pup, Tom Adams, Emily Mullin (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)

First, be informed that CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the tenets of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for the tech. Then, recall that the scientists who developed CRISPR won a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the tech’s already been used to create life-saving therapeutics.

And now here’s Tom Adams (CEO of Pairwise, a company that’s using CRISPR technology to develop better food plants to bring to market), Elena del Pup (biotechnologist and PhD candidate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands), and Vipula Shukla (senior program officer of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and they’re going to tell us about CRISPR-created foods and how they can be good for humanity and for the planet – especially considering the challenges we’re facing from climate change.

CRISPR technology is different from methods used in, can we say, classic Genetically Modified Organisms. The GMOs you’re probably more familiar with, the ones that often raise the hackles of people who fear scientists mucking about with nature in novel ways, are typically the result of taking a bit of genetic material from, say, bacteria, or some other species that’s not the one being modified, and introducing it into the original species’ genome, thus creating a whole ‘nother plant or animal. Like, maybe part of a jellyfish’s DNA, spliced into tomatoes, will allow the plants to better survive a freeze – that sort of thing.

CRISPR, though, uses enzymes to edit the genome of a particular species, to remove or add or switch RNA or DNA within that genome, much the way it’s done randomly by nature or through traditional breeding practices – but faster and more accurately. You take mustard greens, for instance, and you expertly snip and tuck the genome that’s at hand, and those mustard greens turn into better-tasting, less water-dependent, more heat-resistant mustard greens.

Even citizens who might reference The Island of Dr. Moreau when talking of GMOs are less likely to balk at the well-considered acceleration of a natural process, especially when it benefits not just the agribusiness producers of food, but the ordinary human consumers of food everywhere – and in developing countries in particular. Or, at least, the greater public perception of that difference is the hope. (Panelist del Pup and her group in the Netherlands, the Good Scientists, are busy trying to get the legislators of the European Union to understand the difference and pass rules accordingly.)

We said “mustard greens, for instance,” but that’s actually the first CRISPR plant that panelist Adams’ Pairwise plans to bring to the public, having found that, yes, people really do prefer a green that “tastes a bit less like wasabi and a bit more like lettuce.” And if it can also be resistant to disease and insects and weather, if it’s more generally sustainable, that’s beyond a bonus. And this action, writ large, is why the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, panelist Shukla tells us, is interested in CRISPR’s possibilities.

Upshot: More and better food for all the planet’s people, via an arguably more natural method that’s less entangled with gene-splicing’s fraught past, is a promise on the cusp of being realized.

The First CRISPR Foods Have Arrived


Friday, March 8, 11:30am, JW Marriott, Room 201-202

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