CRISPR: How Science & Technology Will Affect the Future of Food

Feb 25, 2020

Imagine a world where you can offer your shoppers wheat that is naturally gluten-free. Fruits and vegetables with extra vitamins and protein. Even super chickens the size of ostriches. The seemingly impossible will soon be a reality thanks to technological advances in food science. IGA CEO John Ross shares everything you need to know about how the gene editing technique called CRISPR will transform the food we sell, and what it means for independent retailers. 

I want you to envision for a moment you are a single-celled organism. You are bopping along, minding your own business, doing whatever single-celled organisms do when along comes a virus. Danger!

It is a life and death fight, but because you are a smart single-celled critter (if there is such a thing), you beat the virus; you kill it. Of course, you want to remember what you did to win if you ever have to fight that particular virus again in the future.

So, you use your own body to clip a piece of the dead virus—a little bit of its DNA—and you store it inside your own body—inside your own DNA—so if you meet one of the virus’ cousins in the future, you can remember how to beat it. It turns out that simple cells have a naturally occurring method of editing their own DNA.

Why am I asking you to think about stuff you learned in high school biology class? Because scientists have discovered that the natural process of clipping genetic material and adding to the cell’s DNA can be harnessed to genetically alter, well, anything. And this simple gene editing technique called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is about to change the food industry like nothing we have ever seen before, leaving everyone either excited beyond belief or terrified. Or maybe a little of both.

Making the seemingly impossible a reality 

So what is CRISPR capable of? 

“Whatever problem we have in the food industry, assume we can find a way around it within a decade,” is the prevailing attitude with food science engineers. Imagine every problem we face, and then let this new gene editing technique manipulate the very structure of plants and animals to solve it.

Want bug resistant crops that don’t need pesticide sprays? Call on CRISPR. Want fruits and vegetables with added nutrients or protein (super bananas!)? Call on CRISPR. Need disease resistant cattle and poultry? Wheat that is naturally gluten free? Fruits and vegetables with extra vitamins and protein? All of these things are not only possible with CRISPR, but increasingly fast and inexpensive to create.

It used to take years and millions of dollars worth of advanced technology to do gene editing. Now a biology graduate student could pull it off in their garage using just a few thousand dollars worth of technology.

The opportunity for innovation in our industry has never been brighter: avocados that don’t go brown, beef that is tender even with cheaper cuts, low carbohydrate carbs, milk with added vitamin C. 

But don’t let your imagination stop there. How about glow-in-the-dark ice cream? Bananas that taste like strawberries? Corn that comes in rainbow colors. Even chickens the size of ostriches? The power of creation is increasingly in the hands of today’s genetic engineers and the opportunities for truly impossible foods are just around the corner.

Outside the food industry, scientists are working on breeds of mosquitoes that don’t carry the malaria virus and treatments to eliminate genetic diseases like lupus, sickle cell disease, and ALS within the decade. 

And then of course, there is the opportunity to turn this science to human breeding. Want your kid to be six feet tall, athletic, and blue eyed? While the majority of the world's scientific community argues against creating designer babies, hyper athletes, or super humans, it will all be possible—sooner and less expensively than any scientists would have guessed.

What does this mean for a regional grocer?

The full effect of CRISPR and how far it can go does indeed feel like science fiction, yet real products are already in the marketplace in medicine, farming, and food.

There are products on your shelves already made with crops whose genes have been edited. And the ingredients in many food items will likely continue to be grown or manufactured using gene editing in the near future. These foods will come faster, and offer bigger benefits than anything we deal with today labeled GMO. The gene edited horse has already left the barn.

This means your shoppers will be increasingly confused on the risks and rewards of eating gene edited food. Who will they turn to? Who will help them make smart choices?

I often ask IGA retailers, “What business are you in? Do you move boxes and cans? Or do you help shoppers make smart choices for what they feed their families?”

If you choose the latter, then your store is truly a partner in the nutritional future of your community. And that means that increasingly you will have to help them navigate the realm of complex food benefits.

Consider the Impossible™ burger: on one hand it is better for the environment. Plant based foods use less water and less energy to produce than animal proteins. But on the other hand it is a highly processed food, and far from a natural “real” product.

Shoppers have a right to be confused. And the confusion won’t stop; in fact, it is going to accelerate. And the rules for judging whether something is natural, good for you, and/or good for the environment will become increasingly complex and blurred.

How can IGA help?

At IGA we are committed to helping you navigate this space. In 2020 we are relaunching our health and wellness content with an entirely new visual merchandising system for your stores. Look for new icons, new signage, and new content to help you help consumers make smarter choices. And look for more dialogue with our Red Oval and industry partners like the FMI—The Food Industry Association on emerging health trends.

The reality is that the food business will be increasingly complex. New, more innovative products will serve real needs (lactose-free real milk, for example). And most of these new products have higher margins, too!

As our industry becomes more complex, it means we have to be more informed, smarter merchants. The good news is that you aren’t alone. As part of the IGA family, we will be here with you to help you navigate these new trends and understand the advantages (and risks) of the next generation of food innovation, so you can make smarter choices for your stores, your shoppers, and your own families.

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