Science to Live By: CRISPR-Cas Corn

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CRIPSR-Cas is one tool that could help keep pace with the growing demand for more sustainable agricultural solutions.  

– DuPont Pioneer

When Carmen and I were young, we made our home at the foot of the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque. Back then, for a weekend outing on a pleasant summer’s day, we would avoid Interstate 25 and travel the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, the picturesque backroad that links Albuquerque with Santa Fe through the high country. The Byway is named for the semi-precious, blue-green mineral deposits of hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate—sought after by Native Americans for more than a millennium—which are found near the northern stretches of the road. Once bustling mining towns, scattered along the way like nuggets of the wild west, may also be discovered and explored; ghost towns such as Golden and Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid, not Ma-DRID).

During one of these trips, we stopped at the Golden General Merchandise Store and struck up a conversation with the proprietors, Vera and Bill Henderson. We learned that in 1962, Bill and Vera purchased the store from her parents. Together they turned the failing store into a thriving arts and crafts trading post featuring Native American jewelry, rugs, Kachina dolls, and pottery for sale.

The Hendersons (both of these dear friends have passed away) were true and devoted connoisseurs and patrons of local and regional artisans. Vera especially wanted customers to share her passion in these handicrafts. If a potential patron showed lackadaisical interest in the artistic qualities of a piece or the artist who made it, she would send them on their way, telling them to take their business to Santa Fe!

I admired Vera’s spunk and forthrightness. She cared deeply, and she stood up for what she believed. She inspired me to learn the stories told about everyday Pueblo Indian life by silversmiths such as the Kewa Pueblo artist Vidal Aragon.

For example, a silver bracelet we purchased depicted a Pueblo village around which grew stalks of corn. As a kid growing up in the D.C. suburbs, about all I knew of corn was corn flakes. The Henderson’s passion for Native American traditions encouraged me to deepen my cultural appreciation of food and agriculture.

The Keresan-speaking tribes of the American Southwest believed in a female corn goddess, whom they called Iyatiku. It is she who led the first people to the surface of the earth from Shipap, her underground realm. To provide for their sustenance and wellbeing, Iyatiku planted pieces of her heart in the fields surrounding their village. These tiny tokens of her body grew into lush fields of life-sustaining corn!

This worldview—that seeds and plants are sacred gifts available to and shared by all—is common among native peoples around the world. This ancient perspective stands in stark contrast to the modern view corporate ag-science offers us. To illustrate, I will use DuPont Pioneer’s CRISPR-Cas waxy corn as an example.

DuPont Pioneer has recently announced its intentions to commercialize waxy corn hybrids developed in the laboratory using a new and powerful gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR-associated system. (That’s not a typo. This two-part acronym incorporates its own acronym!)

“Waxy corn produces a high amylopectin starch content, which is milled for a number of everyday consumer food and non-food uses including processed foods, adhesives and high-gloss paper.”  DuPont Pioneer created this hybrid using CRISPR-Cas advanced gene editing technology to program the plant’s molecular machinery to synthesize amylopectin starch in abnormally high levels.

According to DuPont Pioneer’s website and their September 2016 webinar, “CRISPR-Cas is a more efficient and targeted plant breeding technology.”  In the past, genetic engineering of plants often has relied upon transgenic techniques, which modifies the host species by adding genetic material from different species (i.e., GMOs). CRISPR-Cas does not incorporate foreign DNA from other species. “It’s a continuation of what people have been doing since plants were first domesticated—selecting plants for their desired characteristics like higher yields, disease resistance, longer shelf life or better nutrition.”

CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology is likened to word processing, by which scientist delete, edit, or search and replace specific portions of a plant’s genetic code. CRISPR-Cas uses molecular scissors to cut a specific section of DNA. After the DNA is cut, either a piece is removed and the loose ends are spliced back together eliminating an undesired trait; or a desired trait is inserted into the gap and the DNA is stitched together again.

DuPont Pioneer seeks to further the science and expand the adoption of CRISPR-Cas across all crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, canola, sunflowers, fruits and vegetables. “Agricultural products developed with CRISPR-Cas will be like the ones that we have been producing through conventional plant breeding for generations and will be subject to extensive testing prior to commercialization. As with every technology we apply, we hold ourselves accountable to our core values, to our customers and to consumers.”

According to DuPont Pioneer, current Food and Drug Administration law will not require labelling of CRISPR-Cas waxy corn. Even under the newly enacted National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law of 2016, their genetically edited waxy corn will not meet the definition of “bioengineered” as written in the law, and “would therefore not require disclosure as a bioengineered food.”

For much of human history, edible plants were cherished as gifts from the gods. Now, they are becoming high-tech, commercial products of industry. Once seeds were available to all. Now they are becoming proprietary, patented, intellectual property, licensed through end-user agreements.

Are these trends truly more sustainable agricultural solutions as industry claims they are? Are they empowering farmers? Or are corporate monopolies of engineered seeds leading to “bondage and dependency for farmers who are getting trapped in debt to pay royalties” in the words of Vandana Shiva, philosopher and eco-feminist.

On a personal level, I relish the smell of a freshly picked ear of corn. For me, summer would not be complete without a picnic lunch serving up hot corn-on-the-cob. I wonder, would my body and soul feel as nourished if I knew I was biting into kernels of CRISPR-Cas corn? If not, should I adapt my aesthetic sensibilities to these new agricultural realities by adopting the attitude “CRISPR-Cas corn, and I don’t care” (sung to the antebellum minstrel tune Jimmy Crack Corn)?

© J. Dirk Nies

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