Pairwise, an agricultural biotechnology company, created Conscious Greens Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, the first CRISPR-edited food available to U.S. consumers.
- Pairwise, an agricultural biotechnology company, created Conscious Greens Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, the first CRISPR-edited food available to U.S. consumers.
- The company used CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, to edit mustard greens’ DNA, removing a gene that gives them their pungent flavor.
- The greens are first being rolled out in restaurants in St. Louis, Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, before heading to U.S. grocery stores — beginning in the Pacific Northwest.
- In 2022, researchers with Boston Children’s Hospital revealed that using CRISPR in human cell lines increased the risk of large rearrangements of DNA, which could increase cancer risk.
- Because regulators don’t consider gene-edited foods to be genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they don’t have to be labeled.
Mustard greens are a nutrient-dense source of vitamins and minerals, but their bitter flavor makes them unpalatable to many. To remedy the problem, Tom Adams, cofounder and CEO of Pairwise, told Wired, “We basically created a new category of salad.”
The agricultural biotechnology company, founded in 2017, had raised $90 million by 2021, and $115 million total, “to bring new varieties of fruits and vegetables to market.”
Its first product, Conscious Greens Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, is also the first CRISPR-edited food available to U.S. consumers.
Gene-edited mustard greens coming to U.S. stores
Pairwise scientists used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, to edit mustard greens’ DNA, removing a gene that gives them their pungent flavor.
The greens are first being rolled out in restaurants and other locations in St. Louis, Springfield, Massachusetts and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, before heading to U.S. grocery stores — beginning in the Pacific Northwest.
Pairwise is careful to describe itself as a “pioneering food startup,” trying to distance itself from its true biotechnology roots.
The company has also built a glossy PR campaign to make its motives seem altruistic and necessary to improve Americans’ diets.
But are CRISPR foods really better — or do they pose unknown, and potentially serious, risks to the environment and the people who eat them? Further, it’s not going to stop here. Pairwise is already working on using CRISPR to create blackberries with no seeds and cherries without pits.
The idea that genetic modification is going to compel people to eat mustard greens when they otherwise wouldn’t is also highly questionable. So the company’s claims that its gene-edited products will boost Americans’ nutritional intake are likely to fall flat.
Is CRISPR really an exact science?
CRISPR is being increasingly used to tinker with natural foods. In addition to altering taste, CRISPR is being used to extend shelf life and create foods that resist certain bacteria and viruses.
Whereas genetic engineering involves the introduction of foreign genes, CRISPR involves manipulating or editing existing DNA. It’s said to be “exceptionally precise.”
In an interview with Yale Insights, Dr. Gregory Licholai, a biotech entrepreneur, explained CRISPR this way:
“So as you probably know, our book of life is made of DNA. DNA itself is many millions of base-pairs, which is like a language. And within that language, there are certain regions which code for genes, and those genes are incredibly important because those genes go on to make up everything about us.
“There’s 40,000 proteins that become outputs of those genes and they are involved in our health, our wellbeing, and any defect in those genes becomes problematic and causes disease.
But CRISPR isn’t always an exact science. As is often the case when it comes to tinkering with genetics, gene editing has led to unexpected side effects, including enlarged tongues and extra vertebrae in animals.
Further, when researchers at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute systematically studied mutations from CRISPR-Cas9 in mouse and human cells, large genetic rearrangements were observed, including DNA deletions and insertions, near the target site.
The DNA deletions could end up activating genes that should stay “off,” such as cancer-causing genes, as well as silencing those that should be “on.”
Risks of humans manipulating the genetic code
In 2022, researchers with Boston Children’s Hospital revealed that using CRISPR in human cell lines increased the risk of large rearrangements of DNA, which could increase cancer risk. Such rearrangements occurred up to 6% of the time.
In another warning, researchers attempted to use CRISPR-Cas9 to repair a mutation linked to hereditary blindness in human embryos.
But when they did, it led to “genetic havoc” in about half of the cells, triggering them to lose entire chromosomes.
What’s more, Licholai said, is that genes edited with CRISPR may be transferred to other organisms and become part of the environment:
And therein lies the problem. Once released into the environment, there’s no turning back — and no way of knowing what other changes could occur from this genetic manipulation, at a worldwide scale.
FDA says gene-edited beef Is ‘low risk’
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in March 2022 that Recombinetics’ gene-edited cattle received a low-risk determination for marketing products, including food, made from their meat.
“This is the FDA’s first low-risk determination for enforcement discretion for an IGA [intentional genomic alteration] in an animal for food use,” the FDA reported.
The animals’ genes were modified to make their coats shorter and slicker. The genetic modification to their coats is intended to help them better withstand heat stress, allowing them to gain more weight and increase the efficiency of meat production — but at what cost?
While a lengthy approval process is typically necessary for gene-edited animals to enter the food market, the FDA streamlined the process for gene-edited cattle, allowing them to skirt the regular approval process.
The agency stated the gene-edited beef cattle do not raise any safety concerns because the gene modifications result in the same genetic makeup seen in so-called “slick coat” cattle, which are conventionally bred.
But in 2019, Brazil stopped its plans to allow a herd of Recombinetics’ gene-edited cattle after unexpected DNA changes were uncovered.
As with the FDA, Brazilian regulators had determined that Recombinetics could proceed without any special oversight since their gene-editing involved modifying cattle with a naturally occurring trait.
In this case, instead of altering the cattle’s coats, Recombinetics was editing the cattle to be hornless — until something went wrong. A piece of bacterial DNA used to deliver the desired gene had become pasted into a cow’s genome, essentially rendering it “part bacteria.”
Regardless, in 2022, Recombinetics stated its gene-edited meat products would be available to “select customers in the global market soon” while general consumers would be able to purchase gene-edited meat in as few as two years.
Gene-edited foods aren’t labeled
Because regulators don’t consider gene-edited foods to be GMOs, they don’t have to be labeled. However, 75% of Americans want gene-edited foods to carry a label.