When I visited Jason McHenry’s farm in South Dakota, the young farmer, dressed in worn jeans and sunglasses, led me up a slippery steel ladder on the side of a grain bin. We tumbled through the manhole into a shifting mountain of soybeans. You could sift them through your fingers and taste their sweet, cloudy flavor.
The U.S. soybean crop is four billion bushels a year, about 240 billion pounds. It generates the most cash receipts for American farms after cattle and corn. Of those beans, more than 90 percent are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—that is, they’ve been genetically enhanced, most often through the addition of a gene from a soil bacterium that renders them immune to the weed killer glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup.
The 4,000 bushels McHenry and I were sitting in, however, represent a new type of plant that’s been modified using gene editing. A startup had employed the technology to introduce changes in two genes involved in fatty-acid synthesis, so that oil pressed from the beans is more like olive oil than typical soy oil.
McHenry first heard the pitch for the beans last December, at a hotel near the cooperative of South Dakota soybean processors. “We have something new and exciting,” a salesman told the farmers. “You’ve heard about the ban on trans fats?” Soybean oil has been losing market share since the U.S. government banned unhealthy fats created when soy oil is partially hydrogenated and turns to a solid (think Crisco). Those fats have been killing people. They’re bad food.
Oil from the gene-edited beans could solve that problem, because it doesn’t need to be processed in the same way. Any farmer who agreed to plant the beans, McHenry heard, would be part of the wave of innovation filling store shelves with Greek yogurts, green packaging, and healthy ingredients. What’s more, it would mean a few quarters more per bushel. “You make a little more money, you have a great experience, and you are part of a revolution,” said the pitchman, Thomas Stoddard, a lanky biologist turned seed seller who visited McHenry’s farm with me.
To McHenry, a farmer just starting out with his own acres, his own debts, and his own decisions, the pitch made sense. The Roundup-resisting beans his father still plants are expensive. What’s more, the tumbleweeds have evolved to survive spraying and grow as high as your waist. “Looking at the market as a whole, Europe and China are questioning GMOs,” McHenry says. “You have to keep your finger on what the consumer wants, and as a farmer, you have to differentiate yourself. If you are looking at a market that could be gone, you have to think about alternatives.”
The new beans are the creation of a startup called Calyxt, located 300 miles away, near Minneapolis, where Stoddard works, and nearly a straight shot east on Highway 90 from McHenry’s farm. At the company’s greenhouses, thousands of plants are being altered with gene editing every week. The virtue of the technology is that it lets scientists create designer plants that don’t have foreign DNA in them. The technique, which adds or deletes snippets of genetic information, is similar to what could be achieved through conventional breeding, only much faster. In essence, if there’s some quality about a soybean that you like, and if you know the genetic instructions responsible, gene editing can move them to another bean in a single molecular step.
To many scientists, the potential of gene editing seems nearly limitless, offering a new way to rapidly create plants that are drought-resistant, immune to disease, or improved in flavor. A supermarket tomato that tastes good? That could happen if scientists restore the flavor-making genes that make heirloom varieties delicious. What about a corn plant with twice as many kernels? If nature allows it, scientists believe, gene editing could let them build it.
There is another reason gene editing is causing excitement in industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded that the new plants are not “regulated articles.” The reason is a legal loophole: its regulations apply only to GMOs constructed using plant pathogens like bacteria, or their DNA. That means Calyxt can commercialize its beans without going through the process of permits, inspections, and safety tests required for other genetically modified crops. It’s counting on that to cut at least half the 13 years and $130 million that companies have, on average, invested in order to create a new GMO and get it into farmers’ hands.
To GMO opponents, the new, unregulated plants are a source of alarm. For years, they have argued that GMOs should be opposed because they might be unsafe. What if they cause allergies or poison butterflies? Now the battle lines are shifting because companies like Calyxt can create plants without DNA from a different species in them. They can argue that gene editing is merely “accelerated breeding technology.”
To the critics, any attempt to reclassify engineered plants as natural is a dangerous fiction. “If they don’t have to go through the regulatory requirements, then it is game on again for genetic modification in agriculture,” says Jim Thomas, head of a nonprofit called the ETC Group that lobbies on environmental issues. “That is the prize. They are constructing a definition of a GMO so that gene editing falls outside it.”