Imagine the Possibilities

— Written By Zack Taylor and last updated by

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot in the news about GMOs, also known as transgenic crops. Transgenic crops have actually been on the market since the mid-1990s, and no negative health effects have been found. Despite that, there is still quite a bit of controversy around them. However, like all technology, times change, and a new breeding method is now upon us.

It’s called CRISPR-Cas, and it is already making big waves in the medical fields. There is talk that CRISPR methods will be the key to finally finding cures to disease like AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. But now CRISPR is making its way to the world of plant breeding. Unlike transgenic plant breeding, CRISPR does not involve introducing genes from other species into the plant. Instead, genes already in the plant are either amplified, to enhance certain qualities of the plant, deleted, to remove undesirable qualities of the plant, or moved, to change how the plant develops. The possibilities of what this can mean for our food are endless.

For example, several ideas are currently being investigated. We all have read about the benefits of healthy omega-3’s and how we should eat more fish, right? What if we could increase omega-3 production in soybeans? It is being researched right now, and it could mean an easier way for all of us to eat a little healthier. But that’s not all we can do with CRISPR. We could improve cotton plants to give us a better fiber quality. And how many times have we complained that tomatoes from the grocery store aren’t as good as home grown? That is because much of the flavor was lost while trying to breed for better shipping quality and disease resistance. With CRISPR, we could get that flavor back. Let’s not forget the benefits for the farmer. We know that droughts are a big concern that have effects on our food supply. CRISPR can be used to enhance genes that help plants survive drought. Perhaps the most amazing thing is many of these changes can be made and to the market in as few as 4 growing seasons, while traditional breeding methods would have taken 8-12, perhaps even longer.

I doubt the first CRISPR bred plant will make many waves, even though it should be planted on US farms by 2019. The first CRISPR crop will be a little know type of corn called waxy corn. Most of us have never heard of waxy corn, but it has a lot of potential to change the industry. Only about 0.5% of the corn grown in the United States is waxy corn, but it has a wide variety of uses. In foods, waxy corn is processed into corn starch, used to thicken pies, stews, and more, and is even eaten fresh on the cob in some parts of the world. Waxy corn is also important to industry, where it is used in many adhesives, from envelopes to bottle labels. CRISPR breeding methods have led to new waxy corn varieties, which produce more of the desirable starch and make for a better product for customers. I doubt this will change the world, but it is just the tip of the iceberg of the exciting potential of next generation plant breeding.

Zack Taylor is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, and Pesticide Coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.