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Consumers and producers are capable of incredible folly. Consider, for example, the latest instance of anti-GMO hysteria: Under pressure from consumers, several major food companies — including Hershey’s Chocolate — have decided to only use “non-GMO” sugar. This is stupid for several reasons. To begin with, crystalline sugar does not contain any genetic material, in much the same way that a cat is not made up of several dogs. Indeed, attempts to correctly identify the source of table sugar have found that it’s refined to the point that it’s impossible to tell whether it came from sugar cane or sugar beets, let alone GMO whether or not they were GMO or not; it doesn’t just look identical, but actually is identical, down to the molecular level. Moreover, GMO sugar beets come in a single, well-understood variety that actually reduces pesticide use and increases yield.
This isn’t a market failure so much as a consumer one: People want to pay a premium for magic, and the market obliges them. That many of these same consumers will then cry murder about pesticide and land use is a sad but separate problem. On the other hand, the very same market can succeed when consumers aren’t actively misled, the government operates within a small scope, and producers are allowed to innovate. Via Ron Bailey, it appears that at least some uses of the CRISPR gene-editing technology don’t fall under the current rules that apply to GMOs (especially if there’s no genetic transfer from one organism to another). Upshot? Innovation from relatively small producers who don’t have to overcome nine-figure regulatory burdens:
Natural SocietyFor example, the Pennsylvania State plant pathologist Yinong Yang has used the technique to engineer the common white button mushroom to resist browning. He did that by using CRISPR to delete a few base pairs from a gene. In October, Yang asked the USDA if his edited mushroom requires the agency’s approval to grow and market. In April, the agency replied that since the mushroom contained no foreign DNA, it did not fall under its regulations.
Some researchers in Israel have used CRISPR to create cucumbers that resist several plant disease viruses. Again, since no foreign genes or DNA was introduced into the pickle precursors, they should not fall under the purview of current U.S. biotech regulations. Similarly, British researchers have used CRISPR to change how seeds develop in barley and broccoli. Chinese researchers have used gene-editing to create a wheat variety that resists powdery mildew.
Of course, it won’t last. But it might let some people afford better food at good prices while it does.