Seed companies are promising sweeter strawberries, drought-resistant cabbage and healthier tomatoes in less time and at lower cost thanks to genome editing technology. There’s a catch though: In some cases, rules are so lax that we may never know our food was genome edited.
On the northern coast of the Netherlands, around 30 companies are working in fields and greenhouses to develop the next greatest thing in vegetables. The region calls itself Seed Valley. It is the heartland of European vegetable breeding the way Silicon Valley is the center of IT and software innovation. During a Syngenta media field trip last autumn, the rows of vegetables reminded me of a Disneyland park before all the guests arrive – pristine, bright and trimmed to perfection – almost make-believe.
All the vegetables here are bred using conventional methods, which Syngenta explains, are very scientific and can take years, sometimes decades, to bear fruit (literally). There is no talk of genome editing or CRISPR in these fields because it isn’t allowed in Europe. But several thousand kilometres in either direction – to the US and China – seed companies like Syngenta are starting to show off their latest CRISPR creations.
That’s the fragmented regulatory world we live in right now, but it is quickly changing. More governments are opening their doors to genome editing with tools like CRISPR. Covid vaccine nationalism left its mark – countries are gripped by the F.O.B.L.B – the Fear Of Being Left Behind – as other countries pour money into genome edited seed research. Everyone wants an invention they can call their own.
Governments aren’t just allowing genome editing in food, they aren’t regulating it at all in some cases. This means no strict safety checks, no labelling, and no transparency that our food was genome edited. Some seed companies argue genome editing is simply speeding up something that could happen in nature so why should it be treated any differently. Critics argue otherwise.
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