A few years back, the potato company J.R. Simplot hit on a way to bring genetically modified foods to market with a system that encounters far less regulatory oversight. The company announced this month that it will be working with the California-based Plant Sciences, Inc. to bring this style of gene-edited strawberries to market within a few years.
What Simplot is doing is technically called gene editing, using the technology known as CRISPR. Unlike with other GMO manipulation, gene editing doesn’t bring in genes from any other species; it simply switches off certain genes within the plant. In potatoes, CRISPR was used to turn off the gene that causes cut potatoes to turn brown when exposed to oxygen.
Because this type of work doesn’t bring in genes from any other species, it can be interpreted as a sort of accelerated technique of selective breeding, which is fully legal. Theoretically, turning off that potato-browning gene could be done through crossbreeding; it would just take a very long time and be fairly inefficient. Because gene editing can be seen in this way, the USDA has said that it will not regulate gene-edited crops in the same way as other GMOs, which greatly smoothes the path for CRISPR crops to make it to market.
This particular strawberry is a collaboration between Simplot and Plant Sciences, and according to the Associated Press, the goal is to maximize yield and resistance to waste. In a press release, the company notes the high volume of waste in strawberry production, and it says that CRISPR editing can help extend shelf life and possibly reduce the amounts of water and pesticides needed to grow these strawberries. As with crossbreeding, CRISPR editing could assist by removing a fruit’s vulnerabilities to, say, drought, or a particular pest—at least in theory.
The two companies say they expect to make these strawberries available to purchase within a few years.