Is CRISPR really the answer to feeding the world?

Published on May 16, 2019

Two tomatoes plants sit in a field. They ripen together, they are watered together, they are sprayed with the same amount of pesticide, and grow to roughly the same size. They are plucked, packaged and shipped across thousands of miles, and you pick them up for tonight’s spaghetti and meatballs. But when you get home, and you taste the tomatoes, they are different.

One tastes like your average store bought crap tomato: Bland, darkish pink or orange, and not really very satisfying, more tomato-esque, but hardy, slow to bruise, easy to ship, and difficult to kill. The other, however, is delicious, plump, perfect seed to flesh ratio, and the the most delightful blend of sweet and savory, but slightly softer, and easier to bruise.

The difference? In a small grove across the road, a natural breed of tomato had been quietly growing and going to seed, and had cross pollinated with the second tomato plant, and created a delicious (but far less sturdy) hybrid.


But that, is hybridization by random chance. Now imagine you could take your average tomato plants, and make every single one taste like that, but have it still be hardy, slow to bruise, easy to ship, and difficult to kill. The quote un quote, perfect tomato. Enter CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) or Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. These microscopic scissors will soon allow specific gene sequences to be added, or removed– allowing modifications to the most basic building blocks, while leaving desirable features untouched.

Or that is the dream, anyway. Right now researches around the world are testing whether or not CRISPR can be used as effectively as natural breeding to modify plants. But it does not end at flavor. Glowing tomatoes, spicy tomatoes, blue tomatoes, and tomatoes the size of a watermelon are all things theoretically possible with CRISPR technology.

The Food of Tomorrow

As fun as a blue tomato might be, their are implications beyond novelty for the fruits. To begin with, diversified ingredients can offer new avenues for creativity, and can make restaurants jobs easier. Would you like a sour note in your tomato bisque (no, I am not sure why someone would want such a thing, but for the time being, let’s do our best to pretend)? CRISPR could add the genes from lemon’s responsible for the sour flavour and replace the tomato gene responsible for sweet with it. Want to make a single stuffed tomato that feeds a full family? CRISPR could take a gene that encourages gigantism in plants and modify the genes, and suddenly, tomatoes the size of a watermelon are growing in the field.

But beyond changes for diversification and consumption, changes can be made for other reasons too, and beyond the realm of tomatoes alone. As global warming continues to take it’s toll on our day to day lives, certain plants will be driven from the regions they once called home. For example, their is substantial fear within the scientific community that by 2048, Cocoa trees could die out completely because of deforestation and increasing regional and global temperatures. CRISPR could, however take a gene responsible for heat tolerance, such as those found in most cactuses and insert them into cocoa trees, making them heartier among dry and arid environments. 

As our world changes, our food must change with it, and CRISPR is just one of a thousand possible tools in our repertoire against hunger, and ultimately for survival. So twenty years from now, when you are eating a watermelon that is purple striped, bioluminescent, and tastes like carrots, remember where it all started, a tomato, in a laboratory, where the thought of consumption was the last thought of anyone involved. Science is bringing us closer everyday to the world of tomorrow.

Aaron Lee is a staff writer at Grit Daily. An activist, a foodie, and an author, he does a little bit of everything. Based in Milwaukee, Aaron is in a prime culinary epicenter, where the best and the brightest come to shine. Also a master of small space cooking, he once cooked a 14 pound turkey in a college dorm room.

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