As the USDA clears a CRISPR mushroom for sale, FLG Content Manager Liz Harley asks if gene-editing will clear the air around GMOs.

Writer, historian and former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas has referred to the controversy surround genetically modified organisms or GMOs as “one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century.

I’m inclined to agree with him. Failure by science, business and agriculture to communicate openly and honestly with the public about the realities of GM crops has resulted in millions of people around the world buying into a conspiracy theory, one that has become powerful enough to take the place of scientific evidence in the formation of international crop policy. In spite of the enormous power of crop biotechnology to improve health and wealth in the poorest parts of the world, and ensure crop security in a time of increasing climate uncertainty, the sector frequently remains hog-tied in a superstitious stalemate.

This is why the news that the US Department of Agriculture has approved and CRISPR-modified mushroom for sale caught my eye this week. And indeed the eyes of science communicators around the world. Does this magic mushroom have the power to move the debate forward and maybe even garner some much needed public support?

Practitioners argue that CRISPR is a very different beast to the transgenic methods used to create crops such as Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant corn. Individual genes can be knocked out, inserted or changed very easily, sidestepping the controversy associated with inserting DNA from other species into plants. Whether consumers will agree that CRISPR is a less biologically disruptive means of altering plants remains to be seen, but there is significant optimism that CRISPR crops are different enough to inject some much-needed positivity into the debate. “The new technology,” explains Daniel F. Voytas in Scientific American, an academic and company-affiliated scientist, “is necessitating a rethinking of what a GMO is.”

When it comes to winning hearts and minds in the GMO debate, CRISPR has another big point in its favour. Right from the beginning, CRISPR has enjoyed a high level of public debate and scrutiny, particularly in relation to human genome editing. The technology is now occupies a regular spot in the scientific media where its applications and implications are regularly dissected and analysed. When this spotlight inevitably expands to include plant genomes the established platform for informed public discussion can only work in CRISPR’s favour. 

Many opponents of food biotech will remain unmoved, even by improvements in openness and transparency across the sector. And even if public discussion can dispel many of the myths about the safety of gene-edited food, one big area for controversy remains. GMOs have become synonymous with the most sinister machinations of big business, little more than a cynical ploy to control global food supplies and make money out of hunger. Here, CRISPR may have a little more work to do. The high profile patent battle on-going between UC Berkeley and The Broad Institute over the technology, while extremely lucrative to the victor, could easily fuel conspiracy about dark commercial motives. Writing in Nature, associate professor of law at New York Law School Jacob Sherkow expressed concern that the on-going row could damage the research and education work of research institutions. But we should be equally vigilant to the damage the dispute could do to public perceptions.

For now, the CRISPR mushroom remains in the lab while lead scientist Yinong Yang, plant pathologist from Pennsylvania State University, seeks further approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. And even with the regulators on board, there’s no guarantee that mushroom farmers will welcome the crop with open arms, given the risk of consumer disapproval. Meanwhile, we wait with baited breath to see whether a lone mushroom has the power to breath much-needed enthusiasm into the stalemate.

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