Would you like genetically edited fruit in a bowl on your table?

By Janette Woodhouse
Friday, 15 August, 2014

Consumers are notoriously chary about ‘genetically modified’ foods. Would they be equally cautious about ‘genetically edited’ produce?

Genomes can now be edited quite precisely - making it possible to improve produce without actually introducing foreign genes. According to researchers writing in Trends in Biotechnology, genetically edited fruits might be met with greater acceptance by society at large than genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Personally, I feel this opinion is rather optimistic. Would the average consumer be aware of the difference between genetic editing and genetic modification? I doubt it. Would they willing choose genetically edited fruit if they had already rejected genetically modified? Again, I doubt it.

Genome editing of fruit has become possible today due to the advent of new tools - CRISPR, TALEN and the like - and also because of the extensive and growing knowledge of fruit genomes. It is possible that changes, such as increases or decreases in the amounts of natural ingredients that their plant cells already make, could be made via small genetic tweaks.

So far, such editing tools have not been applied to the genetic modification of fruit crops. Most transgenic fruit crop plants have been developed using a plant bacterium to introduce foreign genes, and only papaya has been commercialised.

How natural?

Chidananda Nagamangala Kanchiswamy of Istituto Agrario San Michele in Italy asserts, “The simple avoidance of introducing foreign genes makes genetically edited crops more ‘natural’ than transgenic crops obtained by inserting foreign genes.”

As always a lot would come down to labelling requirements. If growers could ensure that genetically edited did not have to appear on labels they would get away with it by subterfuge. However, this is not an ethical stance.

Fruit crops are but one example of dozens of possible future applications for genetically edited organisms, Kanchiswamy and his colleagues say. That would open the door to the development of crops with superior qualities and perhaps allow their commercialisation even in countries in which GMOs have so far met with harsh criticism and controversy.

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