The Atlantic runs puff piece on gene-edited foods, fails to grasp risks

puff piece on the gene editing technique CRISPR in The Atlantic online magazine is titled, “CRISPR could usher in a new era of delicious GMO foods”, and asks, “Can the gene editing technique redeem the reputation of engineered crops?”

These “new GMO foods” presumably are considered “delicious” in comparison with the repulsive old-style GMOs – such as herbicide-laden and insecticide-containing soybeans and maize.

The article, by Atlantic reporter Sarah Zhang, tells how the Swedish plant biologist and gene editing proponent Stefan Jansson ate a meal of gene-edited cabbage as a publicity stunt for the benefit of a TV reporter.

Jansson had grown the cabbage in his garden after being supplied with seeds by unnamed researchers outside of Sweden.

This particular gene-edited GMO cabbage may or may not have been “delicious”. But it certainly had a bad effect on Jansson: “His stomach didn’t feel great after, Jansson confessed — ‘as if I had spicy food at an Indian restaurant.’”

Astonishingly, neither Jansson nor The Atlantic’s reporter drew the elementary lesson: that gene-edited foods, just like any other type of GMO food, must be tested for unexpected toxins or allergens prior to release.  

The article’s author is aware that “wild cabbage contains loads of glucosinolates, molecules that give mustard and horseradish their pungency but also repel insects” and that “Too much of it can make humans sick.” 

So much for the expected toxins. They are easy to test for, if they really are what upset Jansson’s stomach. But what if the culprit wasn’t glucosinolate, but an unexpected toxin that can arise from any kind of genetic engineering, including gene editing?

Off-target effects

CRISPR is well known by now to cause off-target (unintended) effects, though the medical research community are a lot more honest about it than the plant genetic engineers.

Astonishingly, right after The Atlantic’s Zhang admits that the gene-edited cabbage might contain toxic levels of glucosinolates, she uncritically quotes Jansson as suggesting that CRISPR “could help with that”.

So even if gene editing hasn’t created “delicious” new GMO foods, it might be useful for reducing high levels of toxins that are present in a gene-edited crop and may indeed have resulted from disruptions caused by the gene editing process?

Are Jansson and Zhang serious? Is this the fabled wonder technique that will “redeem the reputation of engineered crops”?

Anyone cheering yet? Anyone willing to risk a bad stomach, or worse, in the quest for a brave new world of gene-edited crops – beyond the hype merchants who stand to benefit?

Report: Claire Robinson

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